Obama’s Executive Action on Immigration Does NOT Hurt Puerto Ricans

Nov 24, 2014
8:53 AM

Editor’s Note: The following essay is a direct response to Justin Vélez-Hagan’s piece on Fox News Latino, entitled “Puerto Ricans will be hurt the most by President Obama’s executive action.”

In a recent opinion piece, Justin Vélez-Hagan, founder of the National Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce and economic policy researcher at the University of Maryland, argues that Puerto Ricans will be greatly hurt both on the island and in the states proper by President Obama’s executive action on the question of undocumented immigrants. He maintains that the main advantage Puerto Ricans have is “that of comprising a well-educated, yet less costly pool of labor.” Somehow, the “president’s executive action on immigrants will reduce that advantage.”

To support his claim, Vélez-Hagan correctly argues that “Puerto Ricans living on the island are among the most well-educated and skilled in many parts of the Western world, success that is due to prolific and cheap education.” There is no reason for that to change. Providing a path to legality for undocumented immigrants, who already participate in the labor market, will not affect the education system on the island. Education in Puerto Rico, including higher learning institutions, will remain as competitive and as inexpensive as it is now, whether undocumented immigrants are legalized or not.  Undocumented immigrants are not a factor in this equation. Thus, Puerto Ricans studying on the island will retain whatever competitive advantage they have over undocumented workers—if they were competing for the same jobs.

As Vélez-Hagan himself admits, college educated Puerto Ricans are in great demand in the U.S. mostly because of their degrees in STEM fields and bilingualism. Obviously, they are not competing with low-skill labor but with high-skilled labor. It is true that bilingualism and the ability to navigate Latino cultures give insular Puerto Rican college graduates an advantage in the labor market. It is precisely the millions of documented and undocumented Latin American and Latinos in the U.S. who have created that demand for bilingual professionals—and Puerto Ricans from the island benefit tremendously from it. Moreover, bringing millions of Latinos out of the shadows will only strengthen the demand for bilingual professionals.

Throughout his article, Vélez-Hagan repeats, in many variants, his unfounded assertion that providing undocumented workers with a path to legality will hurt Puerto Rico’s economy. He claims that the island will lose its attractiveness to investors, which he identifies as “Puerto Rico’s well-educated, yet cost competitive labor market (combined with federal and local tax incentives), which has kept its tenuous economy afloat.” Besides making that claim, he provides no evidence or elaborates on how this could possibly happen. Furthermore, he focuses on sectors of the Puerto Rican economy which require college education and demand a highly-skilled workforce. Will the millions of undocumented low-skill workers who may find a path to legality thanks to Obama’s executive actions become engineers, accountants, chemists, physicists, biologists, or doctors overnight?  Will they create their own towns, cities and states, and invite foreign investment offering incentives a la Puerto Rican model? (This model, by the way, is crumbling.) I don’t think so. And neither do most Puerto Rican members of Congress.

Vélez-Hagan moves from that argument and then argues that legal status is Puerto Ricans’ greatest advantage in the labor market:

Ironically, as some mainland Americans complain about Puerto Ricans in the diaspora “taking” jobs from blue-collar workers, Puerto Ricans also won’t be able to compete with the influx of even lower wage labor entering Puerto Rico or in the rest of the U.S. A tight labor market for low-income Puerto Ricans will be made even tighter, pushing many more of these American citizens to reliance on the welfare system, straining the rest of the country’s finances.

This argument is laughable and, honestly, quite offensive. It is laughable because it assumes that as soon as undocumented immigrants receive a degree of legality or the promise of eventual legality, they will flock to Puerto Rico. The question is why? They are in the U.S. for jobs not for the weather or the beaches. They follow jobs and create communities wherever they go. And the argument is offensive because it says that instead of competing with the “influx of even lower wage labor,” Puerto Ricans in the mainland will resort to welfare. This argument falls into that old “lazy Puerto Rican living off welfare” narrative. If anything, the history of Puerto Ricans in both the island and the mainland attests to our hardworking nature, resilience and ingenuity. And a closer look will also show our solidarity with the oppressed. Arguing for the continuation of the injustices visited upon millions of undocumented immigrants could not be more un-Puerto Rican.

Vélez-Hagan insists that “Depending on how many of the total number of new legal workers there are in the U.S., Puerto Ricans may find that they cannot be competitive anywhere without some additional, and often unattainable, educational or skills advantage.” So, his point is not to argue for the betterment of the condition of the unskilled or low-skilled Puerto Rican labor in the U.S. mainland, but to keep them as such and to secure their competitive advantage by denying undocumented immigrants a path to legality. Vélez-Hagan, after providing a vague and weak denunciation of the Puerto Rican colonial reality, in fact argues for Puerto Ricans to be kept as second-rate, colonial citizens whom can benefit from their legal status—as long as they are willing to lord over 12 million people forced to live in the shadows.

The essay’s conclusion, like Vélez-Hagan’s opinion piece, is not grounded in reality or any serious analysis. He argues that offering a path to legal status to millions of undocumented immigrants will “further suppress economic growth by creating an even tighter labor force with lower wages on top of additional federal expenditures.” To believe this argument one must completely ignore the fact that the people who may benefit from Obama’s executive decision are already part of the labor force! What he is asking for is to keep those millions of undocumented workers in the shadows so we can exploit them with impunity, so we can force them to work in often inhumane conditions.

The author may claim that he worries about what is going to happen to Puerto Ricans as millions of hardworking people find a path to legality. In fact, he concludes by saying that: “For Puerto Ricans, the worse news is that few will notice how millions of us will, once again, suffer the brunt of the consequences.” But I’m not buying it. And neither are most Puerto Rican members of Congress.

No, Mr. Vélez-Hagan, for Puerto Ricans the worst news is that someone would appeal to our ethnicity to separate us from our Latino and Latin American brothers and sisters; that someone would try to use fear-mongering and an unsophisticated plea to our national pride to convince us to stigmatize and persecute those forced to live in fear of having their families broken; the lives they have built destroyed in a single day; those, whom even though have done everything that the American Dream demands of them, have to remain in the shadows, living in uncertainty; and living under tyranny, the tyranny of not knowing what their future will be. These people are real Americans, and every day, as they live their lives and carry on, they show undaunted courage. It is time they can come out of the shadows and claim their rightful place.

So please, Mr. Vélez-Hagan, do not use a distorted view of who we are as Puerto Ricans for we will not, we shall not be moved to support such a non-Puerto Rican, such a non-American stance on immigration and justice.


Harry Franqui-Rivera  is a historian, a blogger and a researcher at the Center for Puerto Rican Studies, Hunter College, CUNY. He has a forthcoming book, “Fighting for the Nation” on the Puerto Rican experience in the Spanish and U.S. military.  He has recently published in online magazines on the topic of Puerto Ricans in the Korean War and the Diaspora. You can follow him @hfranqui.