On September 20, Hurricane Maria struck the island of Puerto Rico with the intensity of a category 4 storm. The storm battered the island for hours destroying electrical transmission towers, homes, hospitals, and roads, etc. Torrential rain for days flooded the island’s rivers and eroded its earth producing devastating landslides. With electricity down all over the island, infrastructure everywhere falling prey to the storm, and a polluted fresh water supply, it quickly became very difficult for the United States commonwealth to cope. The result: a rapidly rising death toll and newly formed refugee crisis for the Puerto Rican population (Schwartz, 2017).
Across the United States cities welcomed Puerto Rican refugees fleeing uninhabitable conditions on their home island. New Haven was one of these welcoming cities. On Wednesday, February 21st, the New Haven Board of Alders met to assess the welfare of the student arrivals from Puerto Rico. The meeting, called a “workshop” by the Board of Alders, began with the New Haven School Board and the Connecticut State Department of Education first presenting the five-member committee with statistics detailing the current state of Puerto Rican students in the city.
The state explained that while the number of Puerto Rican refugees is trending down, there remain 1,197 students in the state of Connecticut. The New Haven School Board detailed approximately 200 students in the New Haven Public School system. Aside from those numbers, it was striking how little empirical data was discussed at all in the remainder of the workshop. Instead, the New Haven School Board representatives vaguely discussed “the budget” and how to make use of limited funds, and the Department of Education did little more than provide context regarding the student refugee situation in the state and New Haven. Appeals to the committee were primarily emotional.
Both the School Board and the State insisted that a lack of adequate funding made it difficult to fully support these young students. A woman on the New Haven School Board said: “it is not a social burden for us to have these kids. It is a struggle to provide all that these students need.” The state acknowledged funding was an issue, but said the budget would increase as the Governor’s office recognized that the situation “on the ground” for the Puerto Rican students and families was serious and required immediate attention. The state recognized it could not wait around for the federal government to act. Robert Dahl attests that “a key characteristic of a democracy is the continuing responsiveness of the government to the preferences of its citizens” (Dahl, 1972). While immigration bills stalled time and time again in Washington in February, Puerto Rican families and children need assistance, and the failure of the federal government to respond in a timely manner could be argued as a failure of the democratic process.
The meeting continued after the representatives of the New Haven School Board and the State Department of Education spoke for approximately 20 minutes, the workshop moved on to “public testimony” which consisted of Puerto Ricans living in New Haven currently describing their experiences. Public testimony began with a representative of Junta for Progressive Action (a non-profit working to provide the services, programs, and advocacy that improve the social, political, and economic conditions for the Latino community in New Haven) presenting to the committee with members of two Puerto Rican families who had come to the US after Maria.
The first testimony made it clear that where the limited budget makes it very difficult for the city and state to support these young students, non-profit organizations like Junta work hard to pick up the slack. The Junta representative explained that many other “resource centers” in Connecticut have been closing and that the Junta resource center in New Haven was being forced to support many more families as a result. She was also the first to point out that the FEMA hotels that had been housing the refugee families since their arrival, would no longer be allowing them to stay in the hotels after March 20th. The representative was so concerned with the looming evictions that she said New Haven will be in a “housing crisis” if the FEMA hotels close their doors to these families.
The two Puerto Ricans who spoke with the Junta representative both expressed fear of looming homelessness. One man said: “I want to do everything I can to stay here. This is my home now.” They both described inadequacies of the FEMA living situation but made it clear that the FEMA hotel was far superior to returning to Puerto Rico where most of the island remains without electricity or clean water.
Public testimony continued as a number of other Puerto Rican families, some New Haven public school teachers, and other non-profit representatives spoke to the committee. Most of these testimonies began with some degree of gratitude being expressed towards the city of New Haven for its role helping the refugees. One man noted, “It takes a city and this city has stepped up to the plate.” One elementary school teacher at the Truman School’s testimony stood out when she said: “I don’t want my students to have to go back without housing.” Another man, named Fernando Hernandez, wanted to be sure the committee understood that all of the Puerto Rican refugees were “professionals” who were “looking to grow.” He did not have children, he was not as concerned with the students that the meeting had focused on. Instead, he had what seemed like his first opportunity to plea to his local government for assistance.
Each testimony was met with little to no response from the committee. They did not ask questions. They did not deliberate. They did not interject. They listened. They actively sought out the voice of the Puerto Rican community in New Haven and they provided a forum for them to speak. The result: a letter written by the committee to FEMA asking them to prolong the refugees stay in FEMA housing.
Attending this committee meeting was enlightening for multiple reasons. The meeting, and the Puerto Rico crisis as a whole, raised a question that is often asked in democracies: the democracy is representing the people, but who makes up “the people”? Puerto Ricans are citizens of the United States. Robert Dahl emphasizes the role of a democracy in responding to “all of its citizens.” Thus, the United States government is responsible to support these students. Any sign that the government is not responding to the needs of these citizens could be considered a sign of democratic breakdown. Daniel Diaz of the New Haven School Board said at the meeting, “we want them [Puerto Rican students] to feel and be treated like true Americans.” In this statement, he acknowledges some degree of difference that the young refugees currently feel and experience. If these young American citizens do not feel like they are being respected and supported like true Americans, then the United States democracy is imperfect.
As previously mentioned, each refugee who spoke during the public testimony brought up housing as an area where the Puerto Rican community needs immediate help. With the FEMA hotels closing on March 20th it would seem obvious that this would be an area of concern. However, neither the state nor city brought up the issue of housing directly in their testimony. It was discouraging to hear both the state and city stress that they’ve worked hard to discern how to support these students, yet fail to bring up the area that the families themselves claim to need support in the most.
Aside from moments when it appeared that the Puerto Rican community might not be as represented by the United States democracy as it should be, the hour and a half workshop was incredibly inspiring and showed a mostly effective democratic process in action. The elected Board of Alders has created a sub-committee to be able to dedicate itself to education issues in New Haven. That is a sign of a representative body working to understand the specific needs of its electorate and responding accordingly. The workshop itself provided the forum for Puerto Rican citizens to have their voices heard, and made it easier for the Board of Alders to truly represent their interests. The result of the Board writing to FEMA to extend the funding of its hotels shows the committee was engaged and ready to respond to what the Puerto Rican community most desperately needed. The workshop showed an example of a process a representative democracy engages in to support its community while inevitably falling short of purely democratic ideals. In time it will become clearer if the city of New Haven effectively supports its Puerto Rican citizens. On February 28th, the New Haven register reported legislation Connecticut lawmakers are debating currently that would set aside a dramatic increase in funds to support Puerto Rican students (Haigh, 2018). Hopefully the emotional testimony of the families who spoke before the Board of Alders will inspire lawmakers to act.
Dahl, Robert. 1972. Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition. New Haven: Yale University Press. Chapter 1.
Haigh, Susan. “Lawmakers urged to help Puerto Ricans living in Connecticut.” New Haven Register. February 28, 2018. Accessed March 02, 2018.
Schwartz, Matt. “Hurricane Maria Was a Natural Catastrophe. The Aftermath Is a Man-Made Disaster.” Daily Intelligencer. December 22, 2017. Accessed March 02, 2018.