It may be one of history’s “cruel ironies,” suggested Jeff Gould, professor of history at Indiana University, that two separate acts authored by two different legislators named Jones about a century ago would join forces to stall hurricane recovery efforts in Puerto Rico.
Gould’s remarks prefaced the roundtable discussion opening an international conference hosted by the Center for Latin American & Caribbean Studies at IU’s School of Global and International Affairs Friday, September 29. A Hundred Years of Migration (1917-2017): Stories of Caribbean Exile and Diaspora, convened 22 renowned scholars in the humanities and the social sciences from universities across the Americas to tackle the subject of migration as it informs life from Cuba to the Lesser Antilles. The timing of the conference in the aftermath of the punishing storms presented another grim coincidence.
It was only a day before the conference got underway – but more than a week after Hurricane Maria careened through Puerto Rico – that President Donald Trump had temporarily lifted the Jones Merchant-Marine Act of 1920, which stipulates that goods being transported from one American port to another be carried on American-owned and -operated ships. Lifting the ban, many argued, would facilitate the delivery of aid and restoration of basic services to the island’s 3.4 million residents. (Although, it has been suggested, its proposed ten-day suspension extends minimal opportunity for relief.) The American citizenship of those residents is the legacy of the first Jones Act – more specifically the Jones-Shafroth Act of 1917. That act, in tandem with the Supreme Court’s previous determination that Puerto Rico was a US territory, lashed the island to the mainland (and federal shipping restrictions reinforced by the second Jones Act), while stranding it in murky legal waters.
A fact of life for those in the shipping industry and who enforce maritime law perhaps, but the island’s American status is not common knowledge across the mainland US. During the roundtable, titled Then and Now: The Jones Act, 1917-2017, IU Professor of Law Luis Fuentes-Rowher shared a recent New York Times report that only 54 percent of Americans know that people born in Puerto Rico are US citizens. The number shrinks to 37 percent for those ages 18 to 29, he noted. “These findings are important,” Fuentes-Rowher stressed, “because the level of support for aid [to the territory] is connected to whether you think or know that the people of Puerto Rico are US citizens.”
Broad acknowledgement is not the only aspect of Puerto Rico’s American status that is limited, argued Fuentes-Rowher; the 1917 Jones Act – whose centenary provided the milestone for the conference -- conveyed neither full-fledged statehood to the island nor complete constitutional rights to its residents. Puerto Ricans do not have representation in Congress, nor are entitled to electoral votes for President. “Congress holds almost unfettered discretion over island affairs,” according to Fuentes-Rowher, including the prerogative to take away federal benefits, seize land, take over debt restructuring, and approve or veto the territory’s constitution. The ambiguity of the relationship between the mainland and the island leaves certain rights and issues unresolved. As for whether a person born in Puerto Rico can run for president, for example: “Believe it or not,” Fuentes-Rowher said, “that’s an open question.”
“Persons born in Puerto Rico can only acquire a statutory citizenship, which confers a less than equal status on [them],” stated panelist Arlene Diaz, IU professor of history. “Puerto Ricans are included while simultaneously barred from constitutional equality within the Anglo-American polity.”
Puerto Rico’s status as what Diaz characterized as a “liminal legal space” not only allowed for unconscionable medical experimentation and sterilization without consent throughout much of the twentieth century, Diaz noted; the territory’s lack of options with regard to debt restructuring has allowed its infrastructure to deteriorate, “making the devastation caused by last week’s hurricane all the more disastrous for the Puerto Ricans. Will this crisis bring the needed change?” Diaz speculated. “That remains to be seen.”
What seems likely though, suggested panelist Jorge Duany, is an uptick in the already significant numbers of Puerto Ricans migrating to the mainland. Director of the Cuban Research Institute and Professor of Anthropology in the Department of Global & Sociocultural Studies at Florida International University, Duany charted the rates and patterns of migration from Puerto Rico up to and since the enactment of Jones in 1917. A back-and-forth movement of Puerto Ricans around the Caribbean, to Europe, and Hawaii existed before the Jones Act, Duany noted.
But the “commuter nation” or “nation on the move,” as he characterized Puerto Ricans, reoriented themselves toward the US mainland in the decades after Jones. By mid-century, in reaction to the demise of the agricultural economy effected by Operation Bootstrap, a full third of the Puerto Rican work force had emigrated to the mainland, he reported. It wasn’t until 2006 that migration numbers came to rival those of the late 1940s and 1950s — in 2016, Duany noted, 89,000 Puerto Ricans moved to the mainland US. It’s a wave that will probably surge, he predicts.
“I think everyone agrees that given the devastation on the island after Maria,” Duany said, “we’ll probably see even more Puerto Ricans trying to escape.”
The conference, which continued through Saturday, September 30, spanned the topics of citizenship, migration, and transnational identities as they pertain to Puerto Rico, Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and points across the Caribbean, and assembled scholars from diverse disciplines, including folklore, anthropology, political science, and gender studies.