Furor continues a week after Rep. Brown-Waite's "foreign" comment

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite (R-FL) in an official House of Representatives photograph.

The Orlando Sentinel published a scathing editorial rebuke of U.S. Congresswoman Ginny Brown-Waite in its Monday edition. The editorial specifically addressed comments made by the lawmaker last week that Puerto Ricans are "foreign citizens" and therefore should not receive tax rebate checks from the United States government.

In a press release sent out last Tuesday, Rep. Brown-Waite (R-FL) said, "...The bill sends hundreds of millions of dollars to people who do not pay federal income taxes, including residents of Puerto Rico and territories like Guam. I do not believe American taxpayer funds should be sent to foreign citizens who do not pay taxes. Americans want an economic stimulus for Dunnellon, Brooksville and Clermont, not for San Juan or Hagåtña. As the legislation moves forward, it must be changed to ensure that only federal taxpaying American citizens receive rebate checks."

Rep. Brown-Waite represents the fifth congressional district of Florida, which covers much of the Tampa Bay and Orlando metropolitan areas, which are home to sizable numbers of Puerto Ricans. Puerto Rico is a commonwealth, or an unincorporated organized territory, of the United States. While Puerto Rico natives do not pay federal income tax if they are non-Federal employees, they do pay toward Social Security, Medicare and other salaried taxes. Puerto Ricans have been citizens of the United States since the passing of the Jones-Shafroth Act in 1917. Also mentioned in Rep. Brown-Waite's statement are residents of Guam, who do pay taxes but the revenues stay on the island, located in the western Pacific. Guamanians have been American citizens since 1950.

Eduardo Bhatia, the Washington, D.C.-based representative for the Governor of Puerto Rico, wrote a letter to Rep. Brown-Waite condemning her remarks. "Your comments...published in the Orlando Sentinel complaining that Puerto Ricans are 'foreign citizens' and should not benefit from the federal economic stimulus plan were not only wrong but also highly insensitive," Bhatia wrote, continuing on to hypothesize that her remarks "stemmed from sheer ignorance about Puerto Rico." After making that remark, Bhatia went on to chastise Rep. Brown-Waite's press release further, citing that there are over two million Puerto Ricans living in New York and Florida, the state Rep. Brown-Waite is from and the state she represents in Congress, respectively.

José Aponte, the Speaker of the House of Representatives of Puerto Rico, also condemned Brown-Waite and her remarks, asking for a full apology to Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans living in the United States. "Congresswoman Brown-Waite's statement is infuriating and contradictory as it pertains to four million of her fellow American citizens that live in our island...the distorted perception she has of Puerto Ricans is incredible given that she is part of a state with a large population of Hispanics of which close to a million are Puerto Ricans."

The Puerto Rican community in Central Florida, which numbers 220,000 in the Orlando area alone, were livid after hearing of Brown-Waite's remarks. "She is an ignoramus," said Emilio Pérez, president of the Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce of Central Florida. "I think we should make an example of her. Puerto Ricans should unite to support whoever is running against her in the next election." Zulma Vélez Estrada, a Puerto Rican activist in Kissimmee, called for protests in an open letter she wrote to the Puerto Rican community. "Are we going to consent to this nonsense or are we going to stand for our dignity and demonstrate our place in history, and in this community?"

However, it was The Orlando Sentinel that had a sizable say in Monday's edition, dedicating their second editorial column in the past five days to Rep. Brown-Waite and her remarks. "It's bad enough that an elected official serving in Washington should be so clueless, but Mrs. Brown-Waite then became defiant when she was called out on her historical hiccup," the editorial stated, which represents the majority opinion of the editorial board at Central Florida's largest newspaper. The Sentinel goes on to claim that her press representative remarked that her comments were "fine as is." "No, it isn't," the editorial read. "It's embarrassing that a U.S. congresswoman can't get her facts straight on who's a U.S. citizen."

It still remains to be seen what avenue Rep. Brown-Waite will take next, if any, to repair the rift her remarks caused with many of her constituents.