NEW YORK — There have been enough earthquakes in Puerto Rico over the past year and a half that the sensation has stuck with Archbishop Roberto González Nieves of San Juan. Sometimes, González said, he thinks the earth is shaking even when it’s not.
Earthquakes, however, are only a piece of what Puerto Rico’s endured. There’s the economic crisis that came to a head in 2015; hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017, which the island still hasn’t recovered from; and the COVID-19 pandemic, which González said has created “a great deal of anxiety and fear.”
“Assistance is urgently needed,” Archbishop Gonzalez told The Tablet.
In a letter Feb. 16, Nieves, Bishop Rubén González Medina of Ponce, Catholic Charities USA, Jubilee USA Network and prominent voices and organizations from other faiths called on President Joe Biden to aid to the island through actions that would get financial aid to the poor and disabled and to the country for disaster relief, as well as bring job opportunities.
The letter first calls on Biden to instruct the Department of Justice to withdraw an appeal filed last year that blocks $2.3 billion in annual aid for aged, blind and disabled people with little to no income in Puerto Rico through Supplemental Security Income (SSI) payments. The money would help 300,000 U.S. citizens, according to the letter.
The payments are available to citizens in the 50 states, Washington D.C. and the Mariana islands, but not in Puerto Rico, and other U.S. territories Guam and the Virgin Islands.
The DOJ filed for a Writ of Certiorari – the lower court sending the record of a case to the Supreme Court for review – on an early 2020 appeals court decision in the case U.S. v. Vaello-Madero, which ruled Puerto Rico residents eligible for SSI. But the decision is stalled until the DOJ appeal is resolved.
In its petition against the ruling, the DOJ highlights the $2.3 billion annual price tag to add Puerto Rico to the SSI program. It further argues adding Puerto Rico might set the precedent for similar decisions with other U.S. territories, which the Social Security Administration predicts could come with $700 million price tag over the next decade.
The DOJ declined The Tablet’s request for comment.
The letter also requests that Biden expand and fully fund the Nutrition Assistance Program, Medicare, Medicaid, earned income tax credit and child tax credit for the “nearly 60 percent” of Puerto Rico’s children and U.S. citizens living in poverty.
Another important step, the letter argues, is for Biden to implement measures to return pharmaceutical manufacturing jobs to Puerto Rico. Such action would “spur economic recovery and job creation in areas of high unemployment and poverty,” the letter reads.
Eric LeCompte, executive director of Jubilee USA Network notes that Puerto Rico already has a significant pharmaceutical manufacturing sector. In 2006, when Section 936 – a provision that gave companies that set up shop in Puerto Rico tax exemptions – was phased out by the federal government it meant “overnight 100,000 well-paying jobs left Puerto Rico,” LeCompte said.
“Puerto Rico already has the facilities, the expertise, the manufacturing infrastructure that there are ways to immediately activate Puerto Rico to be able to work on COVID response, the production of personal protective equipment, the ability to manufacture vaccines,” he told The Tablet.
The letter also thanks the president for releasing hurricane recovery funds. It was reported at the beginning of the month that administration would free up $1.3 billion in relief funding, and that the administration was working with island agencies to free up another $5 billion.
That said, the letter asserts that Puerto Rico needs another $50 billion in recovery aid.
Asked what’s gotten the people of Puerto Rico through all they’ve endured, Archbishop González said it’s resilience and the island’s religious nature.
“People are resilient,” Archbishop González told The Tablet. “We have a way of assuming suffering and that applies everywhere and it applies here in Puerto Rico. During these times after the hurricanes, after the earthquakes and now during the pandemic people find ways to cope.”
“I would also emphasize the people of Puerto Rico are religious by definition. And that religiosity gives one the strength to live through these very tragic situations with a sense of hope. And with a sense of trust that things in the end will work out,” he continued.