Thursday, May 25, 2023 | 2 a.m.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one: A Puerto Rican walks into (the U.S. Supreme Court, a Republican National Convention, a Hertz rental office …) and is made to feel as though they aren’t a U.S. citizen.
You should have been yelling “Stop!” almost as soon as you started to read that sentence because there is at least one high-profile incident each year in which our fellow Americans — yes, fellow Americans — reveal their ignorance of the island’s status as a commonwealth of the United States.
That status, which has been in place since the Truman administration, gives those born in Puerto Rico the same birthright citizenship (yes, we’re citizens) as anyone born in the 50 states under Section 302 of the Immigration and Nationality Act.
But that fact still seems to get stuck somewhere between the island and the mainland. Earlier this month, a U.S. citizen from Puerto Rico was refused his prepaid reserved car by an employee at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport after he presented a driver’s license instead of a passport.
The rental company — which accepts Puerto Rican driver’s licenses from customers renting in the United States without requiring a passport — eventually apologized after the man posted a video of the interaction on Twitter. But not before an employee called the police.
“Do you know that my driver’s license in Puerto Rico is as valid as a Louisiana driver’s license?” the man, Humberto Marchand, a retired federal law enforcement officer, told the Hertz employee in the video he recorded.
If I were a betting woman, I’d say no — and that’s not just a hunch: A 2017 poll showed that only a slim majority of Americans realize Puerto Ricans are American citizens.
But sure, let’s keep banning books and ignoring the hard parts of our history. Let’s not just continue to make our children (and lots of adults) less safe by pledging allegiance to guns, but also by choosing to make ourselves even less informed than we already are. Those books that the willfully ignorant want to ban, by the way, contain facts like: Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens.
Facts like all of the promises that Washington, D.C., has made to Puerto Rico, but failed to live up to because of xenophobia, racism and poor civic engagement.
Facts like how the island was first pilfered and then ill-served by the federal government, and by extension other entities as well. The message: If the government doesn’t care about Puerto Rico, why should anyone else?
Facts like Puerto Rico, and Puerto Ricans, being part of the United States, but never really being treated like they belong. Questioning whether Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens is just as absurd as questioning whether Pennsylvanians are U.S. citizens. Yet, while Puerto Rico has a delegate in the U.S. House of Representatives, Puerto Ricans on the island are not allowed to vote in general elections. Make that make sense, because it does not.
Facts that allow Americans to erase 3.2 million fellow Americans in Puerto Rico, who — five years after Hurricane Maria — are still in crisis. One of the most pressing challenges: an unpredictable and vulnerable power grid that only exacerbates an already fragile existence on the island.
Residents are also grappling with economic conditions such as an unemployment rate that, in recent months, has come close to being twice as high as the national average, and a stunning 40% poverty rate that’s nearly four times as high as on the mainland.
After the story about Hertz by David Begnaud, a national correspondent for CBS Mornings, was shared widely, many took to social media to share their own dehumanizing and humiliating experiences. Countless people recalled being asked for their “green card” and being threatened with police when they challenged the ignorance, as if these American citizens were doing something wrong by wanting to be treated like, well, American citizens.
In the infuriating police body-cam video, an officer who responds to the Hertz employee’s complaint repeatedly demeans Marchand, saying “I don’t care” as he tries to clarify the situation.
“If you’re saying that you’re a federal officer, then maybe you can understand the words that are coming out of my mouth …” the officer tells Marchand as he attempts to give him and the employee a history lesson that’s apparently been missed by more than a few of our countrymen.
On Thursday, Begnaud shared yet another story of a Spirit Airlines agent and supervisor who, in April, refused to allow a Puerto Rican mother and her family to fly from California to the island … unless they provided her toddler’s passport!
It all sounded very familiar. It was the kind of geographic and historical ignorance — combined with bigotry, of course — that regularly seeps into my inbox when readers suggest I “go back” to my country.
Like so many millions of Puerto Rican U.S. citizens who strongly suggest you all pick up a book and learn your own history, I can only reply: I’m already here.
Helen Ubiñas is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer.
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