A political stalemate over Puerto Rican aid is leaving all US disaster funding in limbo

Senate Democrats recently blocked US$13.5 billion in relief for Americans whose lives were disrupted by hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires, flooding and other natural disasters. The objections had to do with Puerto Rico.

In addition to aid for Kansas, Missouri, Iowa and Nebraska, this bill included $600 million to cover six months’ worth of nutritional assistance requested by Puerto Rican Gov. Ricardo Rosselló. But Democrats refused to back the bill because it lacked funds that would protect the island from floods and rebuild its electrical grid.

The result is an impasse between a Congress that wants to assist a U.S. territory in distress and a hostile White House. As the daughter of Puerto Ricans who moved to the mainland and a policy analyst of racial inequities, I’m concerned that the Trump administration’s neglect of Puerto Rico is based in racial bias.

Complaints

President Donald Trump has vocally opposed disaster relief for Puerto Ricans almost since Hurricane Maria made landfall in September 2017. Within two weeks of that storm, which killed an estimated 3,000 people, Trump accused Puerto Ricans in a series of tweets of wanting “everything to be done for them.”

Not much has changed. Since January 2019, Trump has reportedly dismissed the need for emergency food aid on the island as “excessive and unnecessary.”

Rosselló responded by urging Trump to stop treating Puerto Ricans as “second-class” U.S. citizens. He seems to have reached a breaking point after avoiding being critical of the president. When CNN asked if he felt working with Trump was like “dealing with a bully,” Rosselló replied, “If the bully gets close, I’ll punch the bully in the mouth.”

Part of the US

Puerto Rico has been part of the United States since 1898. The island’s residents are U.S. citizens.

Yet Trump has repeatedly ignored these basic facts by asserting that money to aid Puerto Rico takes money away from priorities on the U.S. mainland. “We could buy Puerto Rico four times over” with this aid money, he reportedly said in late March.

Some things operate differently in Puerto Rico, though, including the safety net. Puerto Ricans, for example, lack access to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the nutritional benefit system formerly known as food stamps and today better known as SNAP. Instead, Puerto Rico operates its own Nutrition Assistance Program, or NAP.