Puerto Rico is at risk of a catastrophic humanitarian crisis. With electricity almost completely wiped out, and over half the island lacking running water, the conditions for disease, sickness, and suffering are set. Help and relief of any kind should be the U.S. government's top priority. However, the Department of Homeland Security has refused to waive the Jones Act, despite a growing petition and bipartisan calls to do so. The outdated law is preventing the full scale of available aid from reaching Puerto Rico, and its continued enforcement ensures Puerto Ricans will pay higher prices for basic necessities.
Basically, the Jones Act prevents non-American ships from docking in Puerto Rico. According to Sen. John McCain, that embargo on foreign ships means Puerto Ricans have to pay up to twice as much for water, food, and medical supplies, not to mention the way it bars the import of needed products and personnel from places not called the United States.
The petition to waive the Jones Act is up on Change.org, and it states that it will be delivered to the Department of Homeland Security. Officially titled "Waive the Jones Act for Puerto Rico to Help Rebuild its Infrastructure and Economy," the petition has already garnered over 300,000 signatures of the 500,000 it's looking for.
The Trump administration has thus far refused to issue a Jones Act waiver, stating that the problem in Puerto Rico is not a lack of supplies but a destroyed infrastructure that makes distributing aid difficult. DHS has also cited the inaccessibility of the many ports in Puerto Rico destroyed by Hurricanes Irma and Maria.
The administration recently waived the Jones Act for Texas and Florida, following the enormous damage inflicted by Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma, respectively.
Some have seen in the Trump administration's unwillingness to do the same for Puerto Rico a disappointing parallel to the president's fluctuating level of public urgency concerning these storms. During Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, Trump tweeted often and spoke regularly about the need to get Texas and Florida back on their feet. In contrast, he spent much of the past weekend picking fights with NFL players protesting against racial injustice.
Trump finally addressed the devastation in Puerto Rico in a series of tweets on Monday, but some noted that he appeared to partly blame the island for its devastation, mentioning its "massive debt" and the "billions of dollars owed to Wall Street and the banks." Another striking contrast is the fact that neither Trump nor Vice President Mike Pence have visited the island. Trump is planning a trip for next week, but both he and Pence went to Texas and Florida within days of their hurricane hits.
Calls to waive the Jones Act are coming from both Democrats and Republicans. On Tuesday, Sen. John McCain sent a letter to DHS criticizing their refusal to provide Puerto Rico with much-needed relief. McCain ended his letter by saying:
It is unacceptable to force the people of Puerto Rico to pay at least twice as much for food, clean drinking water, supplies and infrastructure due to Jones Act requirements as they work to recover from this disaster. Now, more than ever, it is time to realize the devastating effect of this policy and implement a full repeal of this archaic and burdensome Act.
Rep. Nydia Velazquez, a Democrat from New York, has also asked the administration for a one year Jones Act waiver. Born in Puerto Rico, Velazquez has spoken movingly about the need for a "massive response" from the federal government to address the humanitarian crisis.
Ultimately, the decision to waive the Jones Act must come from the executive branch. Therefore, petitioning the Department of Homeland Security is one of the most direct ways to try and affect change to their current policy — you can sign the petition here.