Immigrant Rights: A Puerto Rican Issue?

September 25, 2007


Immigration has divided the Puerto Rican community. While some see the defense of immigrant rights as part of the broader struggle for social justice and Latino empowerment, others view immigrants as unfair competition for scarce jobs.

By Howard Jordan

It was a sweltering hot summer day, and I hadn't seen Palmira Rios for what seemed like ages. During our student days at Yale University in the late 1970s, this remarkable black Puerto Rican woman had championed the rights of Latinos and all students of color as a member of Despierta Boricua, our Puerto Rican student organization. But now we were in a different place at a different time. I sat in silence as the New School for Social Research professor told me of the indignity of being stopped at LaGuardia airport by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) upon her return from the Dominican Republic where she was doing research for a Fulbright fellowship

Rios relayed how the white INS customs agent had demanded proof that she was Puerto Rican and not an "illegal alien." Even after she provided documentation of U.S. citizenship, he threatened to deport her back to the Dominican Republic. After hours of harassment, exhaustive interrogations, and verbal abuse, Rios was finally permitted to return to her home in New York City. "Howard, these INS agents treated me like a criminal” she said, as tears welled up in her eyes. "That I was a U.S. citizen and a university professor meant nothing to them. In their eyes, I was two things they couldn't swallow: I appeared to be a Dominican immigrant and I was black."

This dramatic incident, experienced by one of the Puerto Rican community's "best and brightest," is not unique or isolated. It is part and parcel of the nativist, xenophobic political climate that has ensnared this once-thriving nation of immigrants. The case of Professor Rios illustrates that the immigration backlash is being felt not only by so-called "illegals" but also by Puerto Ricans and other U.S. Latinos whose accent and/or skin color are for many people grounds enough to presume illegality.

For some Puerto Ricans, the defense of immigrant rights is an integral part of the broader struggle for social justice and Latino empowerment in this country. They consider Dominicans, Colombians, and other Latino immigrants to be brothers and sisters in this struggle. These Puerto Ricans view iminigrant-bashing as part of a scapegoating process that starts with stripping undocumented immigrants of their constitutional rights, and ends by attacking the rights of legal perminent residents and U.S. citizens alike.

The majority of Puerto Ricans, however, have gnawing questions about immigration. According to the 1990 Latino National Political Survey, 74% of Puerto Ricans say that too many immigrants are already coming to the United States. Puerto Ricans who favor increased controls on immigration argue that immigration harms their long-term interests. They ask why, given the escalating rate of poverty among Puerto Ricans (the poorest community of color in the nation), they should champion the rights of new arrivals. Like many North Americans, they believe that immigrants take jobs away from U.S. citizens, overuse entitlement programs, and drive down wages. "Our people have paid their dues by fighting in every American war since 1917," one irate Puerto Rican recently complained to me. "These immigrants come here to take our jobs or get on welfare. If this country controlled immigration, our people could find meaningful work." In private, many Puerto Ricans also express resentment that newer arrivals fail to appreciate the pioneering role of their commurnty in establishing social-service programs that help immigrants.

The immigration debate that is raging throughout the United States and in our barrios holds profound iniplications for organizers and activists in the Puerto Rican community. Puerto Rican ambivalence about immigration may drive a divisive wedge into the Latino community, effectively sapping what little political strength Latinos have been able to muster. The lack of consensus on the immigration issue also makes it difficult to forge wider progressive alliances among Puerto Ricans, immigration advocates, people of color, and progressive people of conscience.

Puerto Rican views on immigration are, in part, a product of the historical experience of Puerto Ricans in the United States. Puerto Rico was invaded and colonized by the United States in 1898 after being ceded as booty in the Spanish American War. On March 2, 1917, under the impending threat of World War I, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Jones Act making Puerto Ricans U.S. citizens by law. As products of U.S. conquest, Puerto Ricans do not fit the typical mold of the U.S. immigrant. Sociologist Clara Rodríguez once characterized Puerto Ricans as “colonial immigrants," a term that seeks to capture the unique citizenship status of Puerto Ricans coupled with the cultural-newcomer experience. Although Puerto Ricans have been moving to the United States since the island became a U.S. colony, most migration occurred in the late 1950s. Today, over one-third of the 6.3 million Puerto Ricans live on the mainland.

Puerto Ricans are the oldest and largest Latino community in New York City–numbering around 900,000. Being U.S. citizens at birth, they represent 70% of the city's registered Latino voters. Yet, in this city where Latino once meant Puerto Rican, a process of demographic redefinition is underway. In 1970, two-thirds of all Latinos in New York City were Puerto Rican; by 1990, Puerto Ricans constituted only one-half of all the city's Latinos. Other Latino groups have grown substantially over the past 15 years. The Dominican population increased 165% between 1980 and 1990, numbering 332,713 according to the 1990 Census. Colombians, mostly located in Queens, are the next largest Latino subgroup with 84,454, followed by Ecuadorians with 78,444. The Mexican community in the city, next with 61,722, is the fastest-growing group. These demographic shifts are bound to have significant implications for Latino politics in the city.

Examples of Puerto Rican support for immigrant rights abound. Puerto Ricans have served as directors, chairs and general counsels of some of the city's major immigration-advocacy groups. They have also consistently gone to bat for immigrants with the city's political establishment. In 1984, for instance, a Puerto Rican-Dominican group, Latinos United for Political Action (LUPA), spearheaded the effort to persuade New York City Mayor Ed Koch to adopt an executive order prohibiting city agencies from giving information on the immigration status of residents using city services.

Three years later, at the behest of Puerto Rican activists and elected officials, the New York State Assembly established a Task Force on New Americans (TFNA), chaired by two Puerto Ricans (this author and then Assemblyman José Rivera). The task force introduced the first comprehensive immigration omnibus act in New York State history. It also held the state's first public hearings on immigration and issued a major report on the defects of the employer-sanctions provision of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA). The task force was largely responsible as well for New York State becoming the only state in the union to designate $2 million to facilitate an “amnesty" process for undocumented residents.

More recently, Puerto Rican Congresswoman Nydia Velázquez and Maria Echaveste, a Mexican-American woman who heads the Wage and Hour Division of the U.S. Labor Department, created a special task force–the Apparel/Restaurant Guidance and Enforcement Team (TARGET)–to protect immigrant workers against unfair labor practices in factories and restaurants.

Puerto Ricans have also been prominent defenders of Latino civil rights. Puerto Ricans and Dominicans have Joined forces in such organizations as the Latino Coalition for Racial Justice (LCRJ) and the Latino Rights Project to condemn police brutality against Latinos. In 1987, the LCRJ led a march of over 3,000 in Brooklyn to protest the death of Dominican immigrant Juan Rodríguez at the hands of four New York City police officers.

On the international front, Puerto Ricans in New York City have demonstrated solidarity with Latin America when they felt that U.S. policy was unfair to the region. The community was, for instance, involved in the effort to pressure Congress to grant temporary protective status for Salvadoran immigrants who were fleeing a U.S. government-supported military dictatorship. In 1988, then Assemblyman José Serrano had New York State declared a "sanctuary" for Salvadoran refugees.

Not all of the leadership, however, has come out in defense of immigrant rights. In 1993, the Task Force on New Americans drafted a bill to allow permanent residerits to vote in local elections. When, as the task force's executive director, I asked several Puerto Rican elected officials to sponsor the bill, they replied: "That's a Dominican bill; we're Puerto Rican." Eventually the bill was introduced by Senator David Paterson, an African-American legislator.

In another vivid example of anti-immigrant sentiment among some of the Puerto Rican leadership, New York State Senators Efraín Gonzalez and Olga Méndez endorsed an anti-immigrant legislative report issued last year by State Senator Frank Padavan's Committee on Cities. The so-called Padavan Report called for several pernicious anti-immigrant measures and counted Puerto Ricans as "foreign born." While Senators González and Méndez have since opposed the four anti-immigrant bills sponsored by Padavan, they have never publicly disavowed the report.

Many other Puerto Rican elected officials, while not engaging directly in anti-immigrant practices, do, however, remain oblivious to the implications of immigration for the Puerto Rican community. In a July WBAI public-radio program entitled "Talkback," when City Council member Israel Ruiz, who represents the Northwest Bronx, was asked by a listener about the importance of immigration for Latino political empowerment, he remarked: "That is a federal issue, We in the City Council have nothing to do with that. Write your congressman."

There are a number of important reasons why Puerto Ricans should defend immigrant rights. First of all, the growing anti-immigrant hysteria promotes a climate of discrimination which directly affects Puerto Ricans, who are viewed by many as "foreigners." "Immigration affects all minority groups," explains Midgalia Rivera, a Puerto Rican activist from the Latino Institute in Chicago. "It's a special concern to Puerto Ricans because many of our problems stem from being the subject of discrimination in a society which displays a certain disposition to treat people who look or sound foreign as less than equal. To the extent that you cannot register your child in school because he or she is suspected of being illegal, or that you may not get a job because you look or sound foreign, we Puerto Ricans have a vested interest in addressing this issue."

Public policy targeted at illegal immigrants also often ends up harming Puerto Ricans. A case in point are English Only laws–an integral part of the Republican Party's Contract with America–which seek to establish English as the official language of the United States. English Only laws, while directly targeting immigrants who do not speak English, would have a harmful effect on all linguistic minorities, including Puerto Ricans. As Juan Cartagena, a Puerto Rican activist lawyer, points out: "The debate today centers not on language but on the persons who speak these 'foreign' tongues: Latinos and Asians."

Yet another example of how anti-immigrant public policy affects Puerto Ricans is the employer-sanction provisions of IRCA. According to a U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) 1990 study, after the passage of IRCA, an estimated 227,000 employers began not hiring people because of their "foreign" appearance or accents–a practice that undoubtedly hurts Puerto Ricans. Even more troubling was the report's finding that after IRCA became law, about 83,000 employers began to refuse employment to people who presented Puerto Rican birth certificates as proof of citizenship.

Immigration should, moreover, be seen as a political-empowerment issue for Puerto Ricans. According to a recent study by the Hispanic Research Center of Fordham University in collaboration with the Institute for Puerto Rican Policy, Latino electoral clout in New York is attenuated by low voting rates among Puerto Ricans and low eligibility rates among other Latino immigrant subgroups. In the 1992 presidential elections, turn-out in Puerto Rican election districts was 45%; in 1993, it dropped to only 37%. By contrast, Dominicans, the largest immigrant community in New York, had voter turn-out rates of 51% in 1992 and 52% in 1993. The strategy to increase Latino political representation must be twofold: encouraging more Puerto Ricans to vote, and enfranchising new Latino arrivals. Clearly, the full electoral power of Latinos will only be felt if Latinos of all nationalities–citizens and immigrant non-citizens alike–participate in the political process.

Immigrant rights and Latino empowerment are cousins in the U.S. lexicon called the struggle for social justice. Puerto Ricans, U.S.-born Latinos and all progressive people of conscience need to recognize that the attack on the rights of immigrants is a fundamental attack on civil rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. The anti-immigrant backlash is, at its core, fueled by a search for scapegoats in the face of employment shortages, economic displacement, and diminishing returns to the white middle class. North Americans have been taught for too long that any gains by immigrants are at the expense of "real" Americans.

We Puerto Ricans are no strangers to the immigrant experience. Like the waves of immigrants before us, Puerto Ricans came to the United States to find work. Upon arrival, however, we were often relegated to sweatshop jobs and substandard housing. Generations of Puerto Rican activists have fought to improve our community's lot. As the story of Professor Palmira Rios reflects, the rampant anti-immigrant sentiments sweeping the nation forbode a new wave of racism, discrimination, and hurdles to the political empowerment of Puerto Ricans. In the face of this renewed specter of U.S. intolerance, immigrant rights and Puerto Rican rights are inextricably intertwined.

Howard Jordan is a journalist, attorney, and managing editor of Critica: A Journal of Puerto Rican Politics and Policy. He is also former executive director of the New York State Assembly Task Force on Immigration, and a board member of the Center for Immigrant Rights.

Tags: US immigration, human rights, Puerto Rico, Latino identity, racism

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