Politicians With Puerto Rican Roots Challenge Trump in Push for Aid

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A largely left-leaning cast of Puerto Rican politicians in New York, members of the diaspora or descendants of it, has emerged as a force pushing for aid and attention. They have used the bully pulpits of their offices, booking cable news appearances and writing letters to federal agencies. Representative Nydia M. Velázquez held a news conference in which she warned Mr. Trump that unless he stepped up his efforts for storm victims, “this will become his Katrina.”

They have also sought to wield their influence behind the scenes, lobbying Congressional leaders for immediate relief aid as well as longer term support. Mr. Serrano believes his position on the powerful House Appropriations Committee could help secure the money Puerto Rico needed, calling it “my first priority.”

“It doesn’t matter how many years you spend in New York. It doesn’t matter that you’re a member of Congress,” Mr. Serrano said. “If you were born in Puerto Rico, that island is still in your heart. It’s something that’s very much a part of you and doesn’t leave you.”

Puerto Rico has long depended on those ties as people left for the mainland, where, especially in and around New York City, the community has become deeply entrenched and gained political influence over the course of several generations. “The greatest hope for Puerto Rico is its diaspora,” said José Cálderon, the president of the Hispanic Federation, a national advocacy group. “If we’re going to get Congress to do the right thing,” he said, referring to aid, “it is going to be the diaspora that does it.”

Officials and nonprofit groups in Puerto Rico say the immediate need remains for essentials like food and water. But some are already taking stock of the far more enormous investment a full recovery will surely require: rebuilding a health care system and energy grid that had been fraying before the hurricane and are now a shambles, and relief from a debt crisis that had set off its own wave of devastating consequences, including forcing officials to declare a form of bankruptcy this year and spurring an exodus.

As a territory of the United States, residents of Puerto Rico are American citizens, but they have little clout in Washington: they cannot vote for president in the general election and their delegate in Congress is a nonvoting member. “Is that a disadvantage? Absolutely,” said Edwin Meléndez, the director of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College, who noted that the island could be better served by having its own voting members in Congress. Still, he added, “you have this other network of elected officials that mitigates that lack of representation.”

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Hurricane Maria ravaged much of Puerto Rico, including Naranjitos a town in the central part of the island.

Credit
Kirsten Luce for The New York Times

That network has not always served as a unified force. (Five of the 43 Latino members of Congress are Puerto Rican and all are in the House). The financial crisis, for instance, was an issue that sowed division. But the storm’s toll has brought many of these politicians together in championing a relief effort. In New York, such efforts have been encouraged by the city’s Puerto Rican community, a significant bloc of support for Puerto Ricans running for elected office.

“It’s not a monolith in terms of thinking,” Mr. Cálderon said. “But the hurricane has taken things to a different plane,” he added. “It’s heartening to see the community functioning and thinking as one and committed to what’s important here, which is to get Puerto Rico back on its feet and running and having a resurgence.”

Some have been more critical than others of the federal response. Jenniffer González-Colón, the territory’s nonvoting Congressional delegate, has argued that the federal government had been swift in deploying assistance and that Mr. Trump was “supporting Puerto Rico all the way.”

“This is going to be a long road to recovery,” Ms. González-Colón, a Republican, told reporters while traveling with Mr. Trump to Puerto Rico. “But we are not going to be alone.”

During the president’s visit, his fourth trip to a disaster area in two months, he greeted residents and, at one stop, tossed rolls of paper towels into a crowd. He has defended his handling of the storm, noting the logistical challenges and the promised support. In a television interview, Mr. Trump also raised the prospect of erasing or reducing Puerto Rico’s $74 billion in debt, saying “we’re going to have to wipe that out.” (His administration has since walked that back.)

But by that point, Mr. Trump had already infuriated many Puerto Ricans who have found his statements since the storm to be insulting and feeding into a long-simmering suspicion that they are regarded as second-class citizens. In one post on Twitter, Mr. Trump said, “They want everything to be done for them when it should be a community effort.” And during his visit, he compared Maria’s death toll with that of Hurricane Katrina, which he called “a real catastrophe.”

Ms. Mark-Viverito, a Democrat, denounced his statements as “deplorable and not acceptable,” adding, “Our dignity is being stripped from us.”

Hurricane Maria made landfall on Sept. 20, and since then, the demands on Puerto Rican politicians have been an endurance test. Ms. Velázquez, a Democrat from New York City, has had days that, as she described them, would have been punishing even without the flu and a fever topping out at 101.4 degrees. It has been a whirl of meetings, including with Congressional leaders, and then traveling with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York to the island.

“My God, my first reaction was Puerto Rico was taken back 50 years,” Ms. Velázquez said in an interview a week later, her voice still croaky from being sick. “It was just heart-wrenching. I just broke down right there. But I didn’t want to cry because I didn’t want the people of Puerto Rico to see me crying.”

The public drive for aid has been matched by an effort that resembles case work, as their offices have become way stations between the island and the Puerto Rican community in New York. Ms. Velázquez said she has been inundated with calls: people in Puerto Rico asking for food and supplies and New Yorkers needing help tracking down relatives as lines of communication were cut off.

In some ways, the storm had reminded her of Hurricane Sandy in 2012, which caused considerable damage in her district, which includes the Lower East Side of Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn and Queens. This time, the scale of the devastation and the personal toll — Ms. Velázquez also had relatives she struggled to reach — were different and in some ways more difficult to grapple with, but it also motivated her.

“I’ve never faced any crisis like this,” she said.

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