Puerto Ricans Rally On Capitol Hill: We’re American Citizens

WASHINGTON, DC -- Over two days of speeches and congressional testimony on the island's worsening money problems, a reminder has been repeatedly mixed in with pleas for help: Puerto Rico is part of the U.S., and its people are American citizens.

That simple civics lesson on the status of the people born in the U.S. territory has permeated the discussions this week, heard over and over with the more complex jargon over bankruptcy laws, general obligation bonds, claw backs and Puerto Rico's $72 billion-dollar debt.

The reminder was issued when Puerto Rico Gov. Alejandro García Padilla testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday, where he compared Puerto Rico to a ship in distress with 3.5 million American souls aboard.

It was repeated by several others at a news conference held Wednesday to rally dozens of Puerto Ricans who packed a House committee room and spilled outside to its hallway, drawing security to quiet the crowd and clear hallways.

"This is an issue of respect, the treatment of American citizens in the same way," said Rep. Jose Serrano, D-N.Y. "When I was drafted into the U.S. Army in the Vietnam War, no one said to me, 'Since you were born in Puerto Rico you get a pass.'"

"Puerto Rico is a colony of the United States … We didn't invent that. It is a fact … If those in charge don't carry out your responsibility … we will go to the U.S. federal courts and demand it act in defense of its 3.5 million citizens," added Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill.

Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., felt compelled to issue the reminder as he pointed out that no Republicans have signed on as co-sponsors to legislation that would assist Puerto Rico, despite their Puerto Rican constituencies.

"The House and Senate, in case they forget, these are problems affecting American citizens, who are as much American citizens as anybody else," Schumer said.

Puerto Rico declared it was out of cash Tuesday as it honored a $354 million payment to bondholders that came due Tuesday. While testifying before Congress, García Padilla and Pedro Pierluisi, Puerto Rico's resident commissioner, expressed frustration with the inaction of Congress despite five congressional hearings.

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Their complaints that Puerto Ricans were not being treated as citizens were echoed Wednesday.

"This crisis has yet to receive the attention that it deserves," said Janet Murguia, National Council of La Raza president. "There are nearly four million American citizens, many who have served or are related to those who have served in our Armed Forces, they have responded with valor and all too often with the ultimate sacrifice."

Puerto Rico's Debt: Why Bankruptcy Isn't an Option 2:03

People born in Puerto Rico are natural born U.S. citizens. They were granted that status under the 1917 Jones-Shaforth Act, which also declared the island a U.S. territory.

But it is not just those on the island affected by Puerto Rico's crisis. Many Puerto Ricans who live in the United States have pensions and retirement savings tied up in the island's debt.

Dozens of workers whose union pensions are invested in Puerto Rico were on Capitol Hill Wednesday making rounds to offices of lawmakers to press for relief for Puerto Rico.

Federico de Jesús, a political and media strategist who is Puerto Rican, said the news conference was the largest single gathering of Puerto Ricans on Capitol Hill that he'd seen in his 17 years in Washington.

Among them was Aurea Mangual, 67, of New York, who said she's about to retire and will depend on her Social Security and city job pension for income when she does. She was born in Salinas, Puerto Rico.

"We have to remind people" that we are Americans. "Some people don't know that and if they do ,they want to act like they are deaf," Mangual said. "We have to remind them that Puerto Rican people have invested in this country."

Lizette Colon, who is 59 and from New York but was born in Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico, said "there's still a lot of ignorance in terms of who we are and how come we are citizens."

She said she gets asked by people how many hours it takes for her to get from New York to Puerto Rico by car.

"If we were not a territory we would not be treated like this," she said.

While Puerto Rico's status as a territory is not likely to change anytime soon, Puerto Ricans who have fled the island to the U.S. mainland are being seen as a potential addition to the electorate. Although they cannot vote in the general presidential election as island residents, they can vote in U.S. elections if they live in the mainland U.S. as long as they register to vote in the state where they live.

People on both sides of the Puerto Rico issue have been trying to use that fact to pressure members of Congress to push through legislation to help Puerto Rico.

"There is a history lesson here to be learned and it's a history lesson that I believe the voters of Puerto Rican descent will not forget when it comes to this upcoming election," said Henry Garrido, executive director of District Council 37, the largest municipal employees union in New York.

Measures proposed in the House and Senate have gone nowhere. Rep. Serrano, who is a member of the House Appropriations Committee, discussed inserting some Puerto Rico relief in the omnibus spending bill that Congress is working on to keep government going until after the 2016 elections.

That spending bill must pass by Dec. 11 to avoid a government shutdown.

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