MIAMI-DADE COUNTY, Fla. – Speaking to a forum on how Puerto Rico can recover from Hurricane Maria, Sen. Bill Nelson said Saturday that Puerto Ricans should move toward statehood to avoid being treated like "second-class citizens."
"This senator has always said that I want to be governed by what the people of Puerto Rico want with regard to the states," said Nelson, a Florida Democrat. "But I would not at all blame them if they didn't think that one way to get out of being second-class citizens is to move toward statehood."
Nelson's Republican opponent, Florida Gov. Rick Scott, came out in support of Puerto Rican statehood in May. Thousands of Puerto Ricans have traveled to Florida, seeking work since Hurricane Maria hit in September. Puerto Ricans living in Florida have the potential to become a crucial voting bloc in November's highly competitive Senate race.
In the speech at Florida International University in southwest Miami-Dade County, Nelson said President Donald Trump and the Republican leadership in Congress have a "callous attitude" toward Puerto Rico, denying the island's residents aid that is freely given to people living in the states.
Almost a year since the storm made landfall, Puerto Rico is still struggling to repair its power grid and improve its economy, which was troubled even before Maria.
"The leadership doesn't treat Puerto Rico as the same as they do as of people from Texas and people from Kentucky," Nelson said. "Too many people in Washington look at puertorriquenos as them and not us. And we have to change that mentality."
Nelson said Puerto Ricans lack advantages given to U.S. citizens living in states. He cited Medicare and the child-tax credit. U.S. citizens living in states receive double the child-tax credit benefits than those living on the island.
"Why can't Puerto Rico be treated like any other state? They are fellow American citizens," Nelson said.
This week Nelson tried to extend housing vouchers for Puerto Ricans displaced by Maria and now living in Florida, but the program will end Saturday after objections from his Republican colleagues.
"Shame on them!" an audience member called out after Nelson recounted his efforts.
Pointing out that the victims of Hurricane Katrina received lengthy housing benefits, Nelson said Puerto Ricans are being held to a double standard.
"Puerto Ricans are being treated like second-class citizens by the administration, and I don't think that's fair," Nelson said. "And we're in the midst of a real crisis. I think you see what needs to be done."