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.
The island has not witnessed such scenes of poverty, devastation and heavy U.S. military presence since the early years of the 20th century, when General Nelson Miles came ashore in Guánica in the American invasion during the Spanish-Cuban-American War. For a second time in history, Puerto Rico is completely overtaken by the U.S. forces.
This is not to criticize the federal aid that Puerto Rico so desperately needs, a consequence of two major back-to-back hurricanes in two weeks that wiped out nearly all of the island’s infrastructure – water, power, cell phone communications and some roads, stranding the island’s 3.4 million people.
Instead, it points to the stunning parallel, optical and otherwise, between then and now, our very own version of either Ground Hog Day or Back to the Future.
Not only has the military landed in Puerto Rico, but since January the territory also is ruled by a junta or fiscal board established by Congress, whose members were appointed by the House, Senate and President, and vested with greater authority than the Puerto Rico governor or legislature to reorganize the island’s $70 billion of debt.
Puerto Rico is managed from the outside in a reprise of direct colonialism, a fact not lost on many Puerto Ricans, especially pro-independence followers, a dwindling number to be sure.
And, at least in terms of the military, Puerto Rico and others asked for troops, after decades of pushing the military off the island, particularly the offshore islands of Vieques (with main operations in Ceiba) and Culebra. Today 4,600 troops are helping to get the island back on its feet, a number that the loudest critics of U.S. control over Puerto Rico criticize as too low.
Full disclosure: I was against the military presence in Vieques for its continued bombardment tests on the island, destroying the environment and killing at least one civilian.
In an ironic twist, commanding general Jeffrey Buchanan’s surname matches that of San Juan’s Fort Buchanan, the last standing U.S. Army base in Puerto Rico named after Brigadier General James A. Buchanan, the first commander of the Puerto Rico Regiment (1898 – 1903). By the way, even Fort Buchanan is closed, except for relief efforts, until further notice due to hurricane damage.
The clock is ticking on the 10-day lifting of the Jones Act on Puerto Rico both literally and figuratively. The 1920 federal maritime law dictates that Puerto Rico must use only U.S. flagships to and from its ports, which inflates the cost of merchandise from cars to concentrated juice by 20 and 30 percent, according to reports.
The law, a vestige of colonial times, increasingly is untenable and unacceptable. It is not uniformly applied – the U.S. Virgin Islands are exempt – and places undue burden on the people of Puerto Rico, which if it were a state would be the poorest state of the union.
During his last visit to Orlando, author Nelson Denis (The War Against All Puerto Ricans, Nation Books, 2015) has pushed the idea of a march from Orlando to Jacksonville to protest the Jones Act. Maritime companies such as Crowley are based in Jacksonville, where shipping containers are transferred from foreign ships to U.S. ships before sailing to Puerto Rico.
“Orlando is the answer. We can count on ourselves,” Denis said. “We need to take those first steps.”
The Jones Act is an unnecessary middle step that adds a layer of bureaucracy and costs that no longer is tolerable.
Puerto Ricans Are Coming?
Puerto Rican migration to the states, particularly Florida, is the bogeyman of the twin hurricane disasters. Yikes! More Puerto Ricans may come to Florida. That is always a possibility, one that is dependent on how quickly the island can return to a semblance of normalcy and civilian order.
Throughout the 20th century, Puerto Ricans have not really wanted to leave their beloved island. But they have reacted to economic circumstances on the ground – lack of opportunities, a depression, an economic recession. In addition, the Puerto Rico government has played a role in hastening migration to places such as New York, Hawaii and elsewhere as a way to relieve pressure on the island.
The island’s population, which reached a peak of 3.8 million in 2004, has decreased every year since then principally due to migration and currently is 3.4 million, or 10 percent lower, a reduction the Federal Reserve Board of New York, which oversees Puerto Rico’s banking system, has called “staggering.”
Children of the Diaspora
There are now 5.4 million Puerto Ricans living in the states, nearly twice as many as on the island. But that does not mean that 5 million Puerto Ricans moved here. Of the 5.4 million, only about one-third were born on the island, according to reports. That means the remaining two-thirds – or 3.7 million – are children of the diaspora or children of the children of the diaspora.
Hurricanes Irma and María may accelerate migration, which remained at an all-time high before the disasters cut a destructive path across the island.
State Rep. Bob Cortés (R-Dist. 35) states that as many as 100,000 Puerto Ricans may migrate in the next year, much higher than the 60,000 or so that leave the island annually on average. If so, that would be akin to the 120,000 or so Cubans who landed in South Florida in the Mariel boat lift, which occurred in a much shorter period of time.
Osceola County School Board member Kelvin Soto pegs the figure at 70,000.
In other words, historic.
Florida is correct to begin preparing schools and hurricane relief centers for potential Puerto Rican evacuees to help them get on their feet.
But again, only time will tell how many migrants will move.
Many Puerto Ricans are coming to Florida temporarily until the worse is over and because Florida is the center of the modern-day Puerto Rican diaspora, surpassing New York. They have family ties here.
Orlando may get an early indicator of migration by the number of students who accept the limited offer of in-state tuition at Florida colleges and universities. The idea has great potential but it’s uncertain how many will take up the offer.
Thus far, the response is low. “As of Sept. 27, about 120 UCF students list their residencies as being in Puerto Rico and are eligible for in-state tuition rates,” according to the University of Central Florida.
“Nearly 20 students have already contacted Miami-Dade College with plans to transfer,” according to Lenore Rodicio, executive vice president and provost, based on a report in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.
The figures may firm up for the spring 2018 semester.
Reinventing Puerto Rico after Hurricane María won’t be a quick fix. Puerto Rico is flattened – no water, electricity and communications with the outside world. It faces billions of dollars in uninsured damages from two hurricanes. The people are exhausted, possibly depressed, by the lack of resources.
The governor and his administration warn that the island may be without power up to four months, difficult for an already battered population to swallow – coming on top of a very long economic decline, loss of sovereignty, bankruptcy and now two hurricanes to top off the destruction.
After Hurricane María
Puerto Rico has not taken care of business for decades and things now are decidedly worse, especially for its economy and power grid. Consider this: Hurricanes Harvey and Irma reportedly shaved a half-percentage point off the U.S.’s economic forecast this year, based on the storms’ effects on two large states – Texas and Florida, which together account for 15 percent of the U.S. economy.
What economic havoc will Irma and María wreak on Puerto Rico, whose economy has been in negative territory for a decade? The island’s gross product reportedly declined another 1.1 percent in fiscal year 2016 in pre-inflation dollars, making for over nine years of decline.
The Fiscal Oversight and Management Board that rules over Puerto Rico since the beginning of 2017 has a dire mess on its hands. Not only must it steer Puerto Rico through renegotiation of $70 billion in debt (excluding another $40 billion-plus in pension liabilities), it also must find a way to reconstruct the island of 3.4 million people.
Before Hurricanes Irma and María hit, the fiscal board had been pushing layoffs affecting over 130,000 government workers, seeking to enforce via federal court. Will it proceed as planned? Very likely, Puerto Rico will need to reassign many workers to rebuild the island.
Without electricity, businesses cannot return to normal, striking a major blow to economic activity (down 20 points between 2005 and 2016), low labor participation rate (40 percent) and low incomes (median household income of $18,626 as of 2015).
In case you missed it, Puerto Rico Electric Authority (PREPA) bondholders, concerned about their investment, asked to place the utility into receivership before Hurricane María. A federal court denied the petition, stating that decision was up to the fiscal board.
In the states, insurance payouts for hurricane damages and losses help kickstart recovery, but that is unlikely to happen in Puerto Rico. Many island homes are uninsured (only 50 percent have policies against wind damage), to say nothing of flood insurance (less than 1 percent), reports the Journal.
In addition, Puerto Ricans frown upon mortgage debt, which means people own their uninsured homes, many passed down through generations. These homeowners won’t be able to rebuild without substantial financial assistance. Home foreclosures, last reported at a “stubbornly high” 7 percent, may soar.
It’s too soon to say whether the twin hurricane disasters will push more peo
ple off the island toward the upper 48, including Florida. Face it, historically migration has been Puerto Rico’s relief valve. However, people currently are broke and lack resources for such a move. But they are not broken, demonstrating resolve in the face of catastrophe. Many indicate they plan to stay, according to news reports.
But if the island is not minimally up and running soon, desperation may change that.
Reinventing Puerto Rico
Paradise is not lost. As insensitive as it may sound, this island of stunning beauty has the opportunity to rethink wasteful policies and reinvent itself for a 21st century Puerto Rico, one that is responsive to, and works for, its population and not just the kleptocracy at the top.
Welcome workshops for Puerto Rican migrants will return to Central Florida in a series of classes starting in May after a year-long hiatus in 2016.
Samí Haiman-Marrero and others created the welcome workshops, known in Spanish as Talleres de Bienvenida, in 2014 to help Puerto Rican migrants learn the ropes of Central Florida.
Puerto Rico’s economic distress is pushing many people toward the exit doors, much the same way that extreme poverty and lack of economic development forced hundreds of thousands to flee during the 20th century.
A big difference is today’s migrants overwhelmingly choose Florida – and specifically Central Florida – over other states, a reflection of the demise of manufacturing in the Northeast, once a big draw.
How will migrants acclimate to life in Florida? Do they have a handle on the cultural changes? Will they thrive?
There are over 1 million Puerto Ricans in Florida, although not all come from the island. Obviously, hundreds of thousands of people already have settled down. But there are many examples of families in crisis.
Kids Caught in the Middle
“They are faced with living in a new place where everything is completely different,” said Haiman-Marrero, who is particularly concerned about Latino families living in shelters. “When they’re living in shelters that means they can’t take living in cars anymore. What breaks my heart is the kids. They are caught in the middle of this,” explains Haiman-Marrero, who runs her own marketing firm called Urbander.
Six workshops were held, three each in 2014 and 2015, topping 140 people per workshop on good days. But she took a break in 2016 because of the “craziness” of an election year.
The workshops, open to all newcomers not just Puerto Ricans, cover issues such as housing, transportation, education, health care and how to find a job – “key things anybody needs to know if they move to a new country.”
Puerto Ricans aren’t exactly moving to a new country since all are U.S. citizens and Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory. But in many respects island newcomers do behave like immigrants due to language differences.
Nearly 90,000 people left Puerto Rico in 2015, the highest annual migration figure reported in the period between 2006 and 2015, approaching historical proportions. There’s a good chance that migration may strengthen as new austerity measures are enacted on the island.
Shorten Learning Cycle
The workshops are aimed at shortening the learning cycle. “Instead of it taking a year or two, it takes six months” to acclimate, she explained. “We want to make sure they have the information that can help them better manage the stress.”
Moving is one of the top stress-producing life adjustments, according to psychologists and moving specialists, no matter whether it’s a corporate relocation or a personal one. People are uprooted, their sense of self is shaken. Financial resources may tighten. Children watch parents closely for signs of distress. Public and even familial empathy often is in short supply.
Haiman-Marrero and her then partners, Nancy Shariff and Jackie Méndez, got little empathy in 2014, when they held a taller in San Juan billed, “Florida Expo: World of Opportunity.” About 8,000 people showed up for the three-hour workshop.
The “expo” was not their idea, but it was too late. The show had to go on. Local critics charged they were inviting more Puerto Ricans to Central Florida. On the island some said they were exacerbating Puerto Rico’s financial crisis.
Young workers are over-represented among migrants – just the population needed in Puerto Rico, where labor force participation is around 46 percent and tax revenues have fallen, Puerto Rico statistics show.
“It was mind-boggling,” she said. “But then I figured, why travel to Puerto Rico with our limited funding?”
May Launch Date
Five workshops were held in Central Florida, reaching up to 140 or so people per workshop. This year’s workshop – all free – are set to kick off May 6, followed by one workshop per month held at a branch of the Orange County library, ending in October. Details at https://www.facebook.com/talleresdebienvenida/.
The 2014 workshops were co-sponsored in part by Florida Blue and Orlando Health. This year Haiman-Marrero also is raising funds for the workshops at FundLatinos .
“We’re going fine tune it and make it more robust,” Haiman-Marrero said. “I want to offer a hand up to my fellow boricuas and fellow Latinos.”