After days of resistance, the Trump administration decided Thursday to temporarily exempt Puerto Rico from shipping restrictions that have been inflating the price of hurricane-relief supplies on the island.
On Tuesday night, the Department of Homeland Security said that it would be unnecessary to waive the Jones Act for Puerto Rico. That 1920 law mandates that only American-made, American-owned, American-crewed ships can carry cargo between U.S. ports, including those in U.S. territories like Puerto Rico. The measure was initially passed after World War I, as a means of ensuring that America would retain its naval capacity during peacetime. Today, the law does nothing to increase America’s military readiness — but much to increase the cost of living in Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and Alaska.
The Jones Act can also impede the delivery of food, fuel, clean water, and other vital resources in the wake of natural disasters. If a foreign vessel is ready and willing to deliver medical supplies to a storm-rattled city, it makes little sense to deny it entry to that city’s ports, for the sake of protecting employment in America’s merchant-marine industry. In deference to this fact, the Trump administration waived the Jones Act for Houston after Harvey and Florida after Irma.
But earlier this week, the administration insisted that it would not — and could not — do the same for Puerto Rico. DHS officials told The Wall Street Journal Wednesday that it could only waive the Jones Act for the island if it determined that there weren’t enough U.S. vessels in the surrounding area to accommodate shipping needs. In Puerto Rico, that did not appear to be the case: Thousands of shipping containers full of emergency resources were piling up in the port of San Juan. The Puerto Rican people weren’t bereft of fuel and clean water because too few ships were bringing cargo into its ports, but rather, because authorities were struggling to transport those resources out of its ports, due to the island’s devastated trucking infrastructure.
The Jones Act was still needlessly hurting the economically embattled island by exacerbating the costs of recovery. But the Trump administration said that it did not have the authority to waive the act for cost considerations alone. Plus, as the president reasoned to reporters Wednesday, “A lot of people that work in the shipping industry … don’t want the Jones Act lifted.”
Puerto Rico governor Ricardo Rosselló, Republican senators John McCain and Marco Rubio, and most congressional Democrats continued calling on the president to waive the act anyway. And on Thursday morning, the administration caved. White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders announced the reversal in a tweet.
This is a step in the right direction. But given the island’s profound troubles, the very least America can do now is liberate Puerto Rico from a law that increases shipping employment in Jacksonville, at a multi-billion-dollar cost to the territory’s economy — permanently.