Puerto Rico Evacuee Migration Is No Mariel

The post-Hurricane María Puerto Rican migration has drawn parallels to the Cuban Mariel boat lift of 1980 but the evacuation is no Mariel. /Maria Padilla

Puerto Ricans’ flight from natural disaster is drawing parallels to the 1980 Cuban Mariel boat lift to South Florida but this is a flawed comparison. The Puerto Rican evacuation is no Mariel.

Aside from the obvious differences of sovereignty – Cuba is independent and Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States – the two population movements are different in small and significant ways.

But first, the similarities.The recent Puerto Rican migration is most like the Mariel boat lift in the audacity of its numbers: 125,000 Cubans fled Fidel Castro’s Cuba over a six-month period from April to October 1980 via the port of Mariel west of Havana, braving the shark-infested Straits of Florida often on rickety boats.

Cubans were escaping a failed economy – no jobs, no housing – just as Puerto Ricans are running away with little but their clothes from the near total collapse of Puerto Rico – no economy, no infrastructure (electricity, water), no schools, no medical care, damaged roads and housing.

But there the comparison ends.

Puerto Rico – Mariel Comparison

For the Puerto Rican migration to Florida is more intense, currently at over 143,000-strong in just over a month. It is also more dispersed, with Puerto Ricans arriving all over the state, not just South Florida, as happened under Mariel. More Puerto Ricans are on the way, as post-hurricane conditions on the island defy improvement and people no longer tolerate the wait for normal.

Back in April 1980, Cubans crashed the gates of the Peruvian Embassy in Havana and took refuge inside, followed by thousands of others in a matter of days. Weeks later, Castro opened the port of Mariel, stating anybody who wanted to leave could do so – a first.

In contrast, Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló has clung to Puerto Ricans for dear life, understanding full well the dire financial and demographic implications of a continuing stream of people abandoning economically-troubled Puerto Rico for the states.

He grossly overestimated his and his cabinet’s ability to grapple with the disaster and rapidly improve conditions on the ground. In an irresponsible move, Rosselló took over 40 days following Hurricane María to request federal temporary housing assistance (known as TSA) for the worse-impacted island residents, perhaps fearing that TSA would throw open the migration floodgates.

It’s High Tide

But he couldn’t turn back the tide. About 100,000 Puerto Ricans are expected in Florida by year’s end – on top of the more than 143,000 who have already arrived, according to Gov. Rick Scott’s office. In fact, this week the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) offered to airlift Puerto Ricans off the island to New York, Florida and elsewhere. And the Center for Puerto Rican studies in New York estimates between 114,000 and 213,000 residents may leave the island each year in the hurricane aftermath, with Florida a primary destination.

Even without the hurricanes, Puerto Rico had already endured a record-breaking migration to the states – over 80,000 people in each of the last couple of years, including to Florida – as the island’s debt- and recession-wracked economy continued to flatten residents’ prospects.

One of thousands of boat lifts from the port of Mariel, Cuba in 1980. / Florida Memory-State Archives

Meanwhile, Castro in a fit of pique in 1980 surreptitiously released convicts and the mentally disturbed from Cuban prisons and mental health facilities, some of whom joined the Mariel boat lift. While the “unfit” were a small number of Mariel immigrants, enough rowed their way to Florida, where over 2,200 were detained. (In 1984 President Ronald Reagan entered a pact with Cuba to return 2,700 criminals and mental patients.)

To the best of Orlando Latino’s  knowledge, there are no prison or mental health escapees among the Puerto Rican migrants who are leaving under similar desperate conditions.

Poor and Working Class

They are mostly poor and working-class families, with college students and other professionals thrown in for good measure. Since the beginning of October, over 22,000 Puerto Ricans have passed through the Disaster Relief Center at Orlando International Airport, according to Multi-Agency Resource Center reports. The resource center was established by Gov. Rick Scott as an emergency response measure.

A recent Multi-Agency report indicates that since October 3 a cumulative 29 percent, or nearly one-third of evacuees, are families, averaging 2.9 members. A visit to the center showed not just nuclear families but some extended families as well, with abuelo or abuela in tow.

Last Thursday 480 people passed through the airport disaster relief center. Of those, 15 percent visited the airport’s Social Security desk, indicating either elderly or disability assistance sought. For Orange County Public Schools, 74 percent of the contacts were for employment. For Osceola schools, the figure was evenly split between employment and student services. (Orange and Osceola each count over 1,000 new Puerto Rican students.)

The University of Central Florida has received 945 Puerto Rico student applications, of which just over 200 have been admitted, university reports show. For the first time, UCF has a Puerto Rico Student Association with at least 30 members and growing.

The End

In 1980, the Mariel boat lift ended in October after six months by “mutual accord” between Cuba and the United States. But there can be no mutual agreement to end the Puerto Rican migration, as Puerto Ricans are American citizens free to book airline reservations and leave the island at any time for any reason, and on their own initiative.

The blow back from the Cuban Mariel boat lift in part cost then President Jimmy Carter the November 1980 presidential election to Republican Reagan, a Cuba hardliner. (Reagan tightened the Cuban embargo in 1986.) But Mariel immigrants later created cracks in the established Cuban-American and Republican political alliance.

Thus far, Gov. Scott, expected to challenge Bill Nelson for his Senate seat, has said and done many of the right things to welcome the Puerto Rican evacuees. And Puerto Ricans do not forget a good deed or a kind gesture.

Florida Blue?

Pre Hurricane María, Puerto Ricans were on track to eventually outnumber Florida’s 1.3 million Cubans, but this will occur sooner now. Theories abound about whether the unprecedented influx of Puerto Ricans will turn swing-state  Florida blue. In 2016, Puerto Ricans in Florida voted overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton. So the potential exists.

Puerto Ricans are watching how Scott and the Republican-majority Legislature address the need for more dollars to help evacuees settle (notwithstanding an uncertain number who will return to Puerto Rico). For instance, affordable housing is the top issue. Will Scott and the Legislature raid affordable housing monies generated by real estate-related documentary stamp taxes, as they have in the past?

The doc-stamp tax generated over $314 million in the current fiscal year but only $100 million was appropriated for affordable housing; specifically, $5.5 million for Orange and $1.4 million for Osceola, a pittance.

God forbid Central Floridians start seeing large numbers of Puerto Rican homeless. There likely would be a huge political pushback.

In this regard, the Puerto Rican migration, like the Cuban Mariel boat lift nearly four decades before it, has the potential to uproot Florida politics.

˜˜María Padilla, Editor

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