PERTH AMBOY - Stephanie Márquez-Villafañe, president of the student-based Puerto Rican action group Rutgers Unión Estudiantil Puertorriqueña, offers a sobering assessment of New Jersey’s Puerto Rican student community in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, the worst hurricane to hit the U.S. territory in recorded history.
"University students have expressed a lack of available resources to them and while they have housing through the university—which only lasts during the semester—and an available food pantry that meets certain nutritional needs, students feel as though they do not qualify for the aid being offered to other Puerto Rican migrants,” Márquez-Villafañe said, speaking to a roomful of residents March 16 at Perth Amboy’s Brighton Avenue Teen Center.
Villafañe’s account reflected just one of several obstacles facing the Puerto Rican community, obstacles that were documented at the latest meeting of Gov. Phil Murphy’s Commission on Puerto Rico Relief. The 18-member commission assembled by the administration last month is chartered to collaborate with state and federal agencies in order to expedite relief for families in need.
“It is possible the information is not reaching the students correctly and there are many students struggling with credits and tuition,” Villafañe said.
Commissioner Sam Delgado, Vice President of External Affairs at Verizon, said the Commission's education subcommittee has been looking into providing in-state tuition rates for students affected by the storm, as well as easing transferal for students who have spent time on the island with their families.
Assemblywoman Yvonne Lopez (D-19th Dist.) is supporting legislation to help displaced professionals from Puerto Rico find work on the mainland. The bill number is A-5255, which would revise state law regarding the reciprocity process for out-of state professionals and occupational licensing.
The Commission, created last month by Murphy through an executive order, works with state agencies to examine services already provided to Puerto Rico and Puerto Rican evacuees in New Jersey. The Commission is also collaborating with federal agencies to expedite processes that will benefit Puerto Ricans in New Jersey in need of services, as well as non-profit agencies that provide safety-net services to all those who have been displaced.
Members of Middlesex County’s Puerto Rican community affected by Hurricane Maria filled the Brighton Ave. Community Center in Perth Amboy last week to seek answers and learn about available resources.
Perth Amboy Mayor Wilda Diaz welcomed the statewide commission and expressed encouragement that their mandate will bolster local efforts.
"When Superstorm Maria hit the island we brought many organizations together to see how we were going to address the families in need. Our social services provided assistance, our businesses created partnerships, we held food drives and sent supplied to the island. We even deployed our local police officers to the island," she said.
But her trip to Puerto Rico in December with then Gov.-elect Murphy amplified the need for a statewide approach.
"I appreciate Gov. Phil Murphy for putting this commission together and to provide us with the know-how to get it done," she said.
Commission Vice Chair Peggy Anastos said an organized system of sustained, cross-silo collaboration was the “only way we’re going to address the broad needs of the Puerto Rican community.
“We’re going to work together to see how New Jersey can work to help the American Citizens of Puerto Rico. We’re going to listen so you can tell us what you need and what your problems are,” she said.
It’s no small task as major obstacles identified for Puerto Rican families include hardships on mortgage payments, utility bills, and reaching the island’s rural areas to provide water and power and creating job training and workforce development programs for Puerto Rican residents relocating to New Jersey.
“This disaster is long-term and it’s going to be intergenerational,” Verizon’s Delgado said. “The goals we propose have to be realistic.”