Donald Trump has been accused of using Puerto Rico as a “political football” as he considers taking billions of dollars earmarked for disaster response in the territory and use it to build his border wall without congressional approval.
Pressure is mounting on the president to find a way to end a 21-day partial federal shutdown that is now the joint-longest in US history. Mr Trump’s request for $5.7bn in funds for his US-Mexico wall the major sticking point to passing spending bills to re-open the government.
Puerto Rican Congresswoman Jenniffer Gonzalez said it is “unacceptable” to even consider declaring a national emergency on the border to free up the relief funds, adding the president is “playing with our pain and hope.”
On Thursday, a congressional aide told reporters that the White House has asked the US Army Corps of Engineers to look into the possibility of using funds from the $13.9 billion received in a February 2018 disaster relief bill for border wall construction. The $13.9 billion is earmarked for disaster relief efforts for Puerto Rico, California, Florida, Texas and other states hit hard by natural disasters.
Ms Gonzalez, a resident commissioner for the US territory and a non-voting member in the House, said that Puerto Rico still has not received a promised $2.5 billion even though more than a year has passed since the Category 4 storm Hurricane Maria devastated the island.
“To use this now as a political football is not what US citizens in Puerto Rico deserve,” she said on Friday.
The $2.5 billion fund would help fund projects like channelling rivers to prevent flooding, which has been a widespread concern for Puerto Ricans, especially during what is a six-month hurricane season.
Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello said the wall should not be funded “on the pain and suffering” of U.S. citizens who have faced tragedy after a natural disaster.
San Juan mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, who gained national attention for her strong criticism of the president after Hurricane Maria devastated the island, said Puerto Ricans can no longer “stomach” Mr Trump’s ”theatrics, his lies and his threatening behaviour.”
“His administration was incapable of effectively handling the aftermath of hurricanes Irma and Maria and as a result, more than 3,000 Puerto Ricans died,” Yulín Cruz wrote in a statement to CBS News. “Now he wants to stop relief money from getting to Puerto Rico to build a wall that will accomplish nothing more than show the world the president is egocentric and tantrum-driven.”
As for the shutdown, some 800,000 workers will miss their first instalment of pay under the stoppage on Friday. That, along with growing effects for national parks, food inspections and the economy overall have left some Republicans on Capitol Hill increasingly uncomfortable with Mr Trump’s demands.
Asked about the plight of those going without pay during an interview on Fox News late on Thursday, the president shifted the focus, saying he felt bad “for people that have family members that have been killed” by criminals who cross the border. However, there is no evidence of an immigrant crime wave, with many border counties statistically safer than other areas of the country.
During a visit to McAllen on the Texas border earlier in the day, Mr Trump said that “if for any reason we don’t get this going” — an agreement with House Democrats who have refused to approve the money he demands for the wall — “I will declare a national emergency.” Democrats have called the wall ineffective and unnecessary and accused the president of “misinformation and malice”.
Mr Trump is consulting with White House attorneys about using presidential powers of a national emergency declaration to take unilateral action to construct the wall. He has claimed his lawyers told him the action would withstand legal challenges “100 per cent” – but other experts are not so sure.