'We Want to Become a State.' Puerto Rico's Sole Representative in Congress Speaks Out

Oct 13, 2017

Rep. Jenniffer González Colón was working late in her fifth-floor office in the Longworth House Office Building on Capitol Hill on Thursday night, as she has most nights since Hurricane Maria made landfall over Puerto Rico on Sept. 20.

As the territory's lone representative in Congress, the 41-year-old conservative has been a vital conduit between her constituents and the authorities in Washington that can deliver aid to the devastated island, where 85% of the population remains without power.

She is frustrated. Puerto Rico is home to 3.4 million people who are nominally American citizens — but their lone representative is not allowed to vote on legislation in the House of Representatives. The wake of Hurricane Maria has only emphasized the discrepancy between Puerto Ricans and the rest of the country, González says.

"We're treated differently," she told TIME. "It's frustrating."

Aggravating her frustration is President Trump's attitude towards the growing humanitarian crisis in her home territory. On Thursday morning, he tweeted that federal aid can't sustain Puerto Rico "forever." Previously, he picked fights on Twitter with Carmen Yulín Cruz, the mayor of San Juan, and described those criticizing his management of the situation as "ingrates." (Later on Thursday, the House passed a $36.5 billion disaster relief package, but González says much more will be needed.)

In a candid conversation with TIME, González described the devastation in Puerto Rico, declared her support for the territory's statehood, and shared her thoughts on the President's attitude towards the worsening crisis in America's most populous territory.

We’re having this conversation because of the devastation in Puerto Rico. How are things down there?

It’s worse than it seems on television. Things have improved, but there’s still a lot of work to do. Every day is a different challenge. During the first two to three days, there were no ports open. There’s still no power. We’ve stabilized the supply of gas and diesel, but now, without power, hospitals and dialysis centers and homes for the elderly are running on generators. You’ve still got communities in the middle of the island where you have to airdrop food, because roads and bridges there were washed away.

They’ve told us that the power grid is going to be restored in eight months. It’s not acceptable. We’re still in a dire situation. We never expected to be living in a humanitarian crisis. Just weeks before, we were helping St. Maarten after Hurricane Irma, and now we’re the ones needing help. Our infrastructure was already dated before the storm — it’s from the 1950s and 1960s — and now we need to start over. We need personnel there. We have 16,000 people from the military and the federal agencies, and we still need more.

Has the response of the federal government been adequate?

We never expected this level of devastation. That took everyone by surprise. That’s the reason there’s been an incremental relief effort. During the first week, the radar at the airport went down. Communications towers went down. The power grid was down. So everything was a bigger challenge than the damage from the storms that hit the southern part of the United States. It’s been a huge challenge for FEMA and other federal agencies to deal with a remote island. We’re receiving help, but it’s not enough. We need more boots on the ground.

You’re in an interesting position. You’re the representative of a U.S. territory that isn’t a state. You’re an elected official but you can’t cast your own ballots in the House. At this challenging moment, what do you see as your foremost responsibility to your constituents?

What you just asked is the challenge of my current situation. It’s been the situation for Puerto Ricans for more than a century. Being here in Congress, representing 3.4 million American citizens, without the right to vote. We’re disenfranchised. There’s no other member of Congress who represents more people than I do. I represent 3.4 million people, and I can vote in committees, but I can’t vote on the floor. The only thing I can do is educate my fellow members, brief them, call cabinet secretaries.

The U.S. has five territories — Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Guam, American Samoa, and the Northern Mariana Islands. In our case, not all federal programs apply to Puerto Rico. In disaster mode, there are 10 federal programs, but territories can only apply for help from three. The President gave instruction directly to his cabinet to open Puerto Rico to all federal programs, and now we’re going to have access to them.

And when it’s not a time of emergency, we’re treated differently. Look at Medicaid. A state with a high poverty level like Mississippi can receive up to 83% reimbursement of its Medicaid expenses. In the case of Puerto Rico, as a territory, they fix it, so we only get 45% to 50%. It’s so difficult, when you can just take a plane from Puerto Rico and move to any other state, and then you can vote for the president, vote for your representatives, but if you stay on the island, you can’t vote.

Is it dramatic to say Puerto Ricans are second-class citizens?

More than 200,000 Puerto Ricans have proudly served in the U.S. military and gone to war, but they can’t vote for their Commander-in-Chief. Although Congress acted today — and I’m proud of my colleagues for that — if we were treated as a state, we’d be receiving more help.

That brings me to my next question. The aftermath of Hurricane Maria has invited a new discussion about Puerto Rico’s relationship to the United States — whether statehood is something worth considering. It sounds like you advocate that.

Yes. The people of Puerto Rico voted in November of 2012, and 61% of them said they wanted statehood. In June of this year, 97% of the people who voted, voted for statehood. We want to become a state. That was the mandate from the people of Puerto Rico. I filed a bill in January asking for authorization. I’m focusing on hurricane relief now, but it’s a bill I’m going to file again — to enable Puerto Rico to become a state.

What hurdles stand in the way of that?

We need to educate Congress about it. I think the calamity of the hurricane helped many people realize that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens. Many people never really understood that. It’s raised the level of education about the 3.4 million Americans living down there.

And again, those people have been disenfranchised. It’s an important issue, and it’s the reason I’m here. If we were a state, we’d have four or five representatives in Congress and two Senators. I’m the only representative. If we become a state, we will have full representation, and we will be treated as any other state.

President Trump has made some controversial remarks about the situation in Puerto Rico. Just this morning, he chided Puerto Ricans on Twitter, telling them that federal aid workers can’t stay there forever. He’s insulted the leadership of San Juan mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz. What do you make of that? How do Puerto Ricans feel about President Trump?

I’ll be honest. I was with him during the first hurricane, and he was caring — telling me all the resources he’d give to Puerto Rico, telling his Cabinet members to help us. It was totally different from the tweets I’ve seen. At the time I felt he was taking care of us. Same with Vice-President Pence. When I saw the tweet this morning, I was surprised, because this is not the time for that. Nobody wants to be in a recovery mode forever.

A lot of people in Puerto Rico are frustrated. We need more, because the damage is so big and the level of devastation was something we never expected. We need to turn that frustration into action. I’m not going to get involved in the fight between President Trump and the mayor of San Juan.

What do people in Puerto Rico think of President Trump?

They’re grateful for the help we’ve received. But when you don’t have power, when you don’t have access to medication, when you’re not living the way you were living just three weeks ago, you get desperate. In this moment, as we speak, there’s a dire situation in Puerto Rico. The bill passed in the House today shows that the resources are going to get there, but I’m not hanging up my gloves yet.

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