The Great Debate: How Many Puerto Ricans May Migrate to Florida

A woman and her child are airlifted from a San Juan disaster area this week. How many Puerto Ricans will migrate to Florida?/ Department of Defense

The great debate is on: How many Puerto Ricans will  migrate from the island to Florida over the next year? That is much on the minds of everyone from Central Florida to Puerto Rico, from everyday people to politicians.

“More are coming?” remarked a non Hispanic white stranger to a friend who was wearing a tee-shirt that stated “Florirican,” a new term, much like “Orlando Rican,” which we’ll be hearing more often in the days and weeks to come.

Volunteering at a phone bank, I spoke with about a dozen families in Puerto Rico who were interested in relocating to Florida, most deeply worried about medical care they aren’t getting for themselves or loved ones, including cancer treatment and dialysis. Some had lived in Florida before.

Others are upset about the prospects of no work for months. “I can’t earn money here,” said one man whose wife had given birth to a boy two weeks ago. A woman said, “I work as a [private] physical therapist but I have no work now.”

A young mother of three explained that the children’s father was helping to relocate the family. She didn’t seem daunted by the approximate $3,000 price tag of first and last month’s rent plus security deposit for an Central Florida apartment.

More Are Coming

So, yes, more Puerto Ricans are coming, as evidenced by this self-selected group – nobody calls a phone back unless they’re interested. But let’s separate the hysteria – what we in Spanish call “El Cuco” or the bogeyman of more Hispanics – from the history to try to determine what may or may not happen.

First, to say that thousands of Puerto Ricans may come to Florida after the hurricanes is to state the obvious. Thousands of Puerto Ricans have been arriving in Florida each year for the past two decades – before the twin hurricanes of Irma and María. Florida and Central Florida have absorbed this population, some more successfully than others.

Today, Florida is home to over 1 million Puerto Ricans, up 55 percent since 2007 and a figure that continues to steadily rise.

Year                   Puerto Ricans in Florida

2007                  689,874

2010                  835,674

2013                  924,851

2016               1,067,747

Source: Census

Puerto Rican Migration

Don’t believe any specific forecast of population movement – I’ve heard everything from 1 million to 100,000. Some perspective: A migration of 100,000 or more in a short period of time would be the equivalent of Cuban boatlift to South Florida from the port of Mariel in the early 1980s.  A Puerto Rican migration of 1 million in the next year would be the equivalent of nearly the entire Puerto Rican migration to the states of the 20th century. In 2014, about 84,000 Puerto Ricans migrated, including 64,000 to points stateside, including Texas and Florida, according the Pew Hispanic Center. (The remainder moved to Puerto Rico.)

It’s safe to says that tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans will cross the pond, as Puerto Ricans say, but nobody can state for sure how many that is. Will migration accelerate? Very likely. But migration is dependent on conditions on the ground in Puerto Rico. If the island doesn’t return to normal soon, migration may jump. A semblance of normalcy on the island may clip it.

Life Rafts

Gov. Rick Scott and others are right to prepare for the influx. But he is not doing enough unless there is legislative funding to match for counties, schools, housing and nonprofits to help settle migrants.

The next legislative session will paint a clearer picture of the seriousness of Scott’s call for absorbing the Puerto Rican newcomers. 

To those huffing and puffing about Scott’s political motivations, save it. If I’m drowning, throw me a life vest. Save the political partisanship for later. But if conservatives and  liberals are upset, the governor must be doing something right.

Changing Landscape

That aside, Puerto Rican migration has already changed the political and economic landscapes of Florida and Central Florida. Migration is one reason Orange and Osceola counties have become more heavily Democrat, although Puerto Ricans can be a swing vote. Osceola, with over 90,000 Puerto Ricans, has the highest concentration of boricuas in the entire state.

New migrants would be arriving here at a moment when Florida’s unemployment rate is 4 percent (August figures, seasonally adjusted, per the state Department of Economic Development). Orange and  Seminole are below that, while Osceola is slightly above.

Which means Florida is experiencing a shortage of workers. Anyone interested in working in Florida could not arrive at a better time. The quality of the jobs, in terms of work and pay, is another subject for Florida is a low-wage state, creating a different set of problems.

Deepening Economic Crisis

As for Puerto Rico, already flattened by a 10-plus year recession, its economic crisis widens and deepens. A continued decline of working-age population deprives the island of tax revenue and youth, leaving the island demographically and economically hobbled when it needs the tax base and labor force to rebuild from the ground up. An influx of federal funds to jumpstart the economy again may help mitigate the movement of people.

Holders of Puerto Rico’s approximate $70 billion in debt know they won’t be repaid dollar-for-dollar. Before the hurricanes, the congressionally mandated fiscal control board that rules Puerto Rico had proposed bond repayments at about 25 cents on the dollar over the next 10 years.

After his visit to Puerto Rico, President Trump spoke of wiping out the debt. “You can cay goodbye to that,” Trump said last week, deliberately, I think. Although he has no control or say over debt repayments, Trump’s comments sent Puerto Rico bond prices plummeting more than 45 percent in some cases.

Bondholders would be fortunate to get 10 cents on the dollar after the wreckages of Irma and María.

˜˜Maria Padilla, Editor

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