The devastation in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, the Trump administration’s slow response to it, and the president’s outrageous and divisive attack on the mayor of San Juan, have highlighted two political obstacles facing the islanders: their lack of representation in Washington, and the lack of awareness that they are American citizens, too. The first problem can only be addressed through statehood, but the second is something Donald Trump can and should confront head-on.
Only about half of Americans know that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens by birth, according to a recent poll. That matters not at all in terms of the assistance they need or the sympathy they deserve, but it affects public support for federal aid: 81 percent in the know support aid, compared to only 44 percent who see them as foreigners. And since island residents cannot vote in federal elections, for relief and aid in times of crisis they are dependent on the goodwill of their countrymen.
Past natural disasters have shown how difficult it can be to marshal political support for aid packages, and that’s when the affected states have full representation in Congress. In this case, not only do the affected territories lack representation, but they are also poorer than any U.S. state — and more dependent on a single industry, tourism, which has now been destroyed.
Yet since the storm Trump has missed an opportunity to put his nationalistic rhetoric to good effect — by stressing that these are American citizens. Not one of his tweets have mentioned that fact, an omission that’s especially noticeable given the jingoistic tenor of his tweets about football and other topics.
“It is time to take of OUR people, to rebuild OUR NATION, and to fight for OUR GREAT AMERICAN WORKERS!” He wrote that on Wednesday about tax reform, but he could have said the same about Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Instead, on the same day, he said: “I mean, their island” — emphasis added — “was virtually destroyed.”
One could fairly ask whether these rhetorical shortcomings are a mere oversight. But given Trump’s well-established tendency of indulging racism, it’s hard to not to see it as part of a larger pattern. They are also in stark contrast to the “one American family” that Trump invoked after Hurricane Harvey hit Texas. “When one American suffers,” he said, “we all suffer.”
Trump has a chance to make those same points when he finally visits Puerto Rico on Tuesday. He should make abundantly clear in all of his communications — especially given his love of repetition — that these are Americans and they deserve their fellow citizens’ full support. It’s a message he should repeat throughout the United States, so that more Americans come to see the fullness of their country and urgent needs of its people.