WASHINGTON--President Obama visits Puerto Rico for a few hours on Tuesday, a stop aimed at Puerto Rican voters in Florida--a critical 2012 re-election state--as Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) again called for the island to become an independent nation.
"He's in Puerto Rico, but he's really speaking, as you suggested earlier, to over 4 million Puerto Ricans in the United States that will cast ballots for president, but he's really focusing, I believe, on one state," Gutierrez told Chuck Todd Tuesday on his MSNBC show. "We've seen a demographic shift in Puerto Rican population from the island to the United States not like any other since the 1950s when my mom and dad left the island of Puerto Rico to move to Chicago.
"There are 850,000 Puerto Ricans in the state of Florida -- that one state alone -- and that's a critical state because, you know, let's face it, Illinois, New York, those are states that -- you kind of know where those states are going, right?" Gutierrez said.
He added, "Florida is a very key state. And so I think what he's doing today is he's going to raise some money in Puerto Rico, and then he's going to take some photos. And it's a good idea -- you know, people drinking pina coladas and having.... on the tropical island of Puerto Rico. But, you know, I think people would rather see a president not taking photos but really taking action in order to help a community."
Obama has a potential Hispanic voter problem in his bid for a second term, in large part because his administration has yet to deliver or make a priority immigration reform and deportations have increased on his watch. Florida has one of the biggest Puerto Rican populations in the nation--centered around the Orlando area.
Obama's Puerto Rico trip will only be about five hours, including a fund-raiser to bolster his re-election drive.
Before Obama touched down on Tuesday, Gutierrez used the visit as a peg to press on Obama to step up his efforts to at least pass the DREAM Act--to allow students raised in the U.S.--but are here illegally--to remain to finish their education. Gutierrez message: He wants to see action from Obama to stop the deportations and helping the "Dream Act" students is one of the first things he can do.
"It is time to stop deporting these young people who were raised in the U.S. and are American in every way except for the paperwork," Gutierrez said in Huffington Post column posted on Monday.
Presidential stops in Puerto Rico are rare. Obama's Puerto Rico visit is the first by a sitting president since President John F. Kennedy was there in 1961 and President Gerald R. Ford in 1976. Ford's stop was in connection with what was known then as the Group of Seven economic summit.
PUERTO RICO STATUS
Gutierrez, born in Chicago, is the son of Puerto Rican parents. He frequently travels to the island and had a home there.
Puerto Rico is a commonwealth; it's status has been the subject of ongoing discussions for years, with statehood and independence among the alternatives.
Gutierrez told Todd: "Puerto Rico is a colony of the United States. I know better than most. I'm a member of Congress, and I know that we have full plenary powers over Puerto Rico. ......So let's -- I've always encouraged the people of Puerto Rico to organize themselves and then demand from the Congress of the United States action so that it can be a truly decolonizing experience."
And what does decolonizing mean?
"Here's what it means for me. It means that, look, if Puerto Rico is going to move towards statehood, well, statehood is certainly a decolonizing situation. I prefer independence for Puerto Rico. You can also have a relationship between the island of Puerto Rico and the United States, and you can have some kind of treaty and compact which respects the cultural, linguistic values of the island of Puerto Rico.
"But in the end, Chuck, I really think it's incumbent upon the people of Puerto Rico to organize themselves in a fashion, to reach a consensus about their future, and then the Congress of the United States to say we're going to respect that decision."