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The Jones Act, Waived to Help Deliver Supplies to Puerto Rico, Is Back in Effect

Joe Piette / Flickr

In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Maria, rescue and relief organizations struggled to bring enough supplies to the devastated island.

Some of this was due to the logistical challenges of shipping food and water to an island where more than 90% of power was cut off, cell service was limited, and infrastructure destroyed.

This challenge was exacerbated by an obscure 1920s maritime law called The Jones Act, a protectionist law that prevented non-US ships from docking at Puerto Rican ports.

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After days of pressure from US Sen. John McCain, officials in Puerto Rico, and other members of Congress, President Donald Trump waived the law for 10 days.

Now, less than two weeks later, the Trump administration announced that they would not extend the waiver, putting Puerto Rican lives in danger, according to critics of the Jones Act.

Read More: In the Wake of Hurricane Maria, Here’s How to Help People in Puerto Rico

"We believe that extending the waiver is unnecessary to support the humanitarian relief efforts on the island," Homeland Security Press Secretary David Lapan told CBS in a statement. "There is an ample supply of Jones Act-qualified vessels to ensure that cargo is able to reach Puerto Rico."

The Jones Act, also known as the “Merchant Marine Act,” was signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson a few years after the conclusion of WWI. Its original intent was to protect US merchants from overseas competition by requiring that all goods entering American ports must be delivered by ships built and operated by Americans.

Now that the 10-day waiver has expired, the number of ships that will be able to enter Puerto Rico with supplies will be limited, leading to a potential doubling in the cost of basic goods for the island’s 3.4 million residents.

Critics say the nearly 100-year-old law will hamper efforts to assist Puerto Ricans, who are still in desperate need of food, water, and gasoline among other relief supplies.

McCain, who was a vocal advocate of the original waiver, introduced legislation into the US senate on Sep. 28 that would permanently exempt Puerto Rico from the Jones Act.  

Read More: Puerto Rico’s Crisis Is Not About ‘Broken Infrastructure.’ It’s About Poverty

A statement on McCain’s website articulated the pressure he hopes to put on lawmakers in light of the decision not to extend the waiver.

“Now that the temporary Jones Act waiver for Puerto Rico has expired, it is more important than ever for Congress to pass my bill to permanently exempt Puerto Rico from this archaic and burdensome law,” he wrote. “Until we provide Puerto Rico with long-term relief, the Jones Act will continue to hinder much-needed efforts to help the people of Puerto Rico recover and rebuild from Hurricane Maria.”

The bill was co-sponsored by Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT), and will go up for a vote later this month.

For Global Citizens interested in assisting the people of Puerto Rico, check out our article on relief organizations accepting donations here