The Wall Street Journal issued a dire warning that the unfolding debt crisis in Puerto Rico could create an “exodus” of “Puerto Rican refugees” to the United States who would vote for Democrats and soak up public benefits -- completely ignoring their status as American citizens, with every right to live and work in whatever part of the country they wish.
On May 2, The New York Times reported that the government of Puerto Rico defaulted on $399 million of a scheduled debt payment of $422 million owed to creditors and bondholders. According to the Times, the government in San Juan has already severely cut public services for millions of the island’s residents, but it is still unable to make up the revenue shortfall created by a prolonged recession that has sapped the Puerto Rican economy. Puerto Rico will be unable to repay its obligations without an act of Congress allowing the island to restructure its debt.
In a May 2 editorial, The Wall Street Journal urged necessary congressional action to help Puerto Rico write-down and restructure its debt obligations, but it did so only to avoid “anarchy and a back-door bailout” that would result in “tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans flee[ing] to the mainland where they will land on the U.S. public dole.” The Journal said the debt crisis could result in an “exodus” of “Puerto Rican refugees” moving to another part of the United States and voting in federal elections. The paper speculated that if the Republican-controlled Congress did not assist the island, Puerto Rican votes would go “to the Democrats for years to come” (emphasis added):
A new report by the Instituto de Estadísticas de Puerto Rico shows the island’s population exodus is accelerating with a net 64,000 Puerto Ricans moving to the U.S. in 2014. Most are young people—the median age is 29 and income is $13,000—seeking a better life. While many will eventually find jobs in the U.S., their incomes will at least initially be low enough to qualify for Medicaid, food stamps and public housing. Their kids will attend public schools.
The Puerto Rican refugees will also be able to vote. In 2014, Florida (23,297) was the top destination for Puerto Ricans followed by Texas (5,019) and Pennsylvania (4,304). Virginia (1,664) and Ohio (1,553) ranked ninth and tenth. President Obama won Florida by about 74,000 votes in 2012—there are more than one million Puerto Ricans living in the state—and 537 votes decided the 2000 presidential election.
A congressional default would relegate the island to economic paralysis, and Florida and Puerto Rican voters to the Democrats for years to come.
The editorial board’s decision to slur millions of American citizens as “refugees” is irresponsible.
Puerto Ricans moving to another part of the United States are not “refugees”; they are American citizens, and have been granted formal American citizenship since March 2, 1917. The full rights of citizenship were later extended to “All persons born in Puerto Rico on or after April 11, 1899.” If some residents of Puerto Rico choose to move throughout the United States in search of better economic opportunities for themselves and their families, they have every right to do so.
Millions of Puerto Ricans are suffering from the island's confluence of corporate greed and bureaucratic mismanagement, as explained by the Huffington Post. HBO's Last Week Tonight has also exposed the precarious circumstances created by Puerto Rico’s status as a U.S. territory, rather than a fully incorporated state, and highlighted the importance of helping Puerto Rico restructure its debt.
The Journal’s fearmongering about so-called “Puerto Rican refugees” fits the standard right-wing media trope about the supposed threat presented by immigrants and refugees. Right-wing outlets often worry that refugees will soak up government resources, and that Democrats will use government entitlement programs to curry favor with Spanish-speaking immigrants. But the Journal’s decision to paint Puerto Ricans as refugees -- rather than the American citizens they are -- may set a new low for conservatives.