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The 'foreign citizens' fallout
Brown-Waite's description of Puerto Ricans causes ill feelings.
By JOHN FRANK, Times Staff Writer
Published February 1, 2008
BROOKSVILLE - U.S. Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite "reluctantly" voted for President Bush's economic stimulus package this week and her reasoning is prompting minor discord.
The Brooksville Republican questioned the widely supported bill because it did little to help senior citizens who live on Social Security. Instead, she said in a news release this week, it gives tax breaks to those who don't pay federal income taxes, such as current residents of Puerto Rico and Guam.
Brown-Waite called them "foreign citizens."
"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," she said in the news release. "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 Hagatna. As the legislation moves forward, it must be changed to ensure that only federal taxpaying American citizens receive rebate checks."
Residents of Puerto Rico were granted U.S. citizenship in 1917.Likewise for residents of Guam in 1950. They pay Social Security taxes and other federal levies, though not federal income taxes.
Brown-Waite spokesman Charlie Keller said Thursday the congresswoman knows that they are U.S. citizens, and acknowledged the false characterization.
"The wording foreign was really a way to designate" those who don't pay federal income taxes, Keller said in an interview. "Territorial would have been a better word."
But Keller said Brown-Waite is not considering retracting her statement or issuing an apology. "It has nothing to do with people themselves," he explained. "It has to do with the state of federal taxation." He wrote the comments for Brown-Waite and she approved them. "That was a term I used and she was comfortable with that," Keller added.
Some area residents of Puerto Rican ancestry objected to her comments, when told about her statements.
"Using that term foreign, that is too bad," said Noemi De La Rosa, a Spring Hill resident and former Springstead High School Spanish teacher. "They are part of the U.S. and they do pay taxes - a lot."
About 26,000 citizens of Puerto Rican ancestry live in the 5th Congressional District, according to the latest U.S. Census estimates from 2006. They amount to 3 percent of the 850,000 people in Brown-Waite's district. About 7,800 Hernando County residents cite Puerto Rican heritage.
For someone in her position, De La Rosa added, "she needs to be more literate" about U.S. citizenship. "You need to think about it twice," she said. "She is offending a lot of people that are probably with her" on other issues.
It's not the first time Brown-Waite has broadly miscast a group. In 2003, she angered French officials and some constituents when she proposed a bill to allow families to bring home to "patriotic soil" the remains of fallen soldiers buried in France and Belgium. The move came amid the height of the anti-French sentiment for that country's stance against the Iraq war.
And in 2006, Brown-Waite refused to condemn the comments of a prominent constituent who called Islam a "hateful, frightening religion."
The statements are the "views of many of my constituents," Brown-Waite wrote in a letter to concerned citizens. She said every Muslim is not a terrorist but "it's historically accurate that every terrorist has been a Muslim with the one exception of the bombing of the Murrah building by Timothy McVeigh."
This latest incident is not a controversy in the eyes of Brown-Waite's staff. The congresswoman's Washington office has received a handful of calls from constituents about her remarks and only one expressed concern, Keller said.
He said critics are "nitpicking over a word choice" and miss the point about who should and who should not receive the tax relief in the stimulus plan.
Brown-Waite, he said, applauded the efforts of the U.S. Senate to amend the stimulus plan to include tax breaks for seniors on fixed income.
"If the rebate is truly intended to be stimulative," Keller said, "getting it to lower income citizens or seniors would have a better stimulative effect."