Pa. legislator: Puerto Rican addicts get 'appalling mistreatment' in Philly

Puerto Rican State Sen. Carmelo Rios Santiago speaks with Kensington activist Charito Morales on April 11, 2017 after a hearing on the treatment of island addicts in Philadelphia

Decrying the “appalling mistreatment” of Puerto Rican heroin addicts lured to Philadelphia by the promise of treatment in plush recovery houses – a pipeline known as Air Bridge – State Rep. Angel Cruz (D., Phila.) chaired a hearing Tuesday to tout legislation he plans to introduce to address the problem.

And after the hearing, the Democratic majority leader of the Puerto Rican Senate disclosed that the U.S. Justice Department on the island was "looking into Air Bridge." Sen. Carmelo J. Rios Santiago added that any federal investigation "has got to start in Puerto Rico."

Rios' remark was the first indication that the federal government is investigating Air Bridge, on which the Inquirer and Daily News reported at length in November. A spokeswoman for the Department of Justice in Puerto Rico said she could neither confirm nor deny the existence of an investigation. 

At the hearing in City Hall, Cruz said “a program such as Air Bridge only worsens what is the worst public health epidemic Pennsylvania has ever faced,” referring to the abuse of opioids. “Don’t forget, folks. These are human beings.”

The November story detailed how Air Bridge is a pattern of exploitation stretching from the Caribbean to North Philadelphia that has increased the numbers of homeless and sick people in the city, torn apart families, and confounded advocates.

Local ministers who run recovery houses in Kensington and Frankford are often part of Air Bridge, in some cases traveling to Puerto Rico to entice substance abusers from the island to the mainland.

The ministers have teamed up with mayors, police, and pastors in Puerto Rico to promise a paradise in Philadelphia where heroin addicts from the island can kick their drug habits in resort-like facilities. Instead, addicts coming here find themselves in squalid recovery houses where many said they are abused, robbed of food stamp benefits, and offered no real help.

In many instances, they wind up in the homeless encampment of drug addicts, many of them HIV-positive, in Fairhill and West Kensington near the Conrail tracks. Recently, the city has decried the encampment, as well as Conrail for not doing enough to close the place down.

Speaking at the hearing, Rios said addicts coming from Puerto Rico find themselves in recovery houses run by unqualified people who employ systematic shaming and physical and emotional abuse.

“I cried when I heard about it,” he said after the hearing. Rios said Air Bridge is a form of human trafficking that he “couldn’t believe was happening in 2017.”

He said that while many island officials have stopped sending addicts here, there’s still work to be done on the island. 

Anxious to point out that Puerto Rican officials have played a large hand in Air Bridge, City Councilwoman Maria Quiñones Sánchez said later in a statement, "I caution Puerto Rican officials not to come here and lay blame for their suffering at our doorstep in an astonishing display of hypocrisy."

U.S. Rep. Robert Brady (D., Phila.) called Air Bridge a “crime against the community” in a letter sent to Cruz. The congressman pledged to “bring federal resources to the table.”

Luz Beatriz Colon, executive director of the Governor’s Advisory Commission on Latino Affairs, said Air Bridge is an “ongoing inhumane crisis.”

Cruz has proposed a program that would require the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services to monitor the well-being of Puerto Ricans who sign up for drug treatment. DHS would be able to request that the attorney general investigate any violations and refer them to law enforcement.