By Cherri Gregg

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — A new coalition– Pennsylvania for Puerto Rico– is joining a national effort calling for federal action to aid the cash-strapped US territory. KYW Community Affairs reporter Cherri Gregg attended a press conference in North Philadelphia where lawmakers called the island’s debt situation– a humanitarian crisis.

Mired in more than 72-billion dollars in debt, jobs are becoming scarce in Puerto Rico with roughly half of the island’s population living below the poverty line. This economic crisis has forced hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans to flee the island for the US Mainland over the past decade, with scores of families abandoning their homeland each month.

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“We’re asking for the ability to declare bankruptcy and restructure our debt,” says Philadelphia Councilwoman Maria Quiones Sanchez. She joined state and local leaders who say the 400,000 Puerto Ricans in Pennsylvania are coming together to demand that Congress give the territory the US territory the power it needs to determine its own fate. She says half of the 3.7 million people living on the island are in poverty, so the 5 million Puerto Ricans living on the mainland are using their political power to help their brethren.

“The crisis is not five years from now; the crisis is in three weeks– in January Puerto Rico runs out of money period and will not be able to pay its debt,” says Angel Ortiz, a former member of Philadelphia City Council.”They will have to lay off teachers, they will not be able to pay pensions…if Puerto Rico goes bankrupt it will have a ripple effect.”

Pennsylvania for Puerto Rico will send four bus loads of supports from Philadelphia to Washington Wednesday to lobby Congress. The group, along with others from across the country are demanding that Congress 1) Grant Puerto Rico Bankruptcy and Debt Restructuring; 2) Eliminate Medicaid Inequities & Preserve Health Care Access in Puerto Rico and 3) Uplift Puerto Rican Families by Extending the Federal Income Tax Credit (EITC) and Child Tax Credit.

“We’re not asking for anything we haven’t had in the past,” says Quiones-Sanchez, who notes the territory of P.R. once had the right to declare bankruptcy, but lost it when laws change.

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Quiones-Sanchez and others claim the Hispanic Caucus supported President Obama in the passage of the Affordable Care Act with the understanding there would be equity for Puerto Rico.

“We need Congress to Act,” she says, “and if Congress will not act– Obama has the power to implement an executive order.”

The group claims Puerto Rico’s debt crisis is the result of bad tax policy.

“Let Puerto Rico decide its fate,” says Pa State Representative Angel Cruz.

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For more on Pennsylvania for Puerto Rico (#PA4PR), contact the Hispanic Federation at