Dueling numbers on Puerto Rican migration since the hurricanes hit have generated questions about the actual numbers who have landed in Florida.
Puerto Rican evacuees in Florida have surpassed the 200,000 mark, according to Gov. Rick Scott’s office in a press release dated November 29 that cites the number of arrivees since October 3. But the figures beg for more scrutiny and explanation of – not because things are markedly better in Puerto Rico. They are not. Electric power is still an on-and-off thing, as is water, and many schools remain closed. Not because it’s impossible for so many people to have left on a jet plane. It is not.
In fact, the Puerto Rican migration hit historic highs even before the twin hurricanes of Irma and María set the island back 30 years, with about 500,000 leaving since the Great Recession, according to the Center for Puerto Rican Studies in New York.
The migration numbers require closer inspection because they seem impossibly high. While it is true the Florida is seeing an influx of Puerto Ricans post Hurricane María, is it likely that over 200,000 Puerto Ricans have moved to Florida in just two months? The state estimates do not compute with other forecasts, such as by the Center for Puerto Rican Studies.
Of course, “real” numbers won’t be available until the census counts head by head, nose by nose, an exercise that is over two years away. Let’s do some adding and subtracting for argument’s sake.
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.
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.
Central Florida will send a number of fresh faces to Congress come January. All are Democrats.
They include State Rep. Darren Soto, who will represent Congressional District 9 and is the first Puerto Rican from Florida to head to Congress, a symbol of the growing Puerto Rican electorate. In addition, former Orlando police chief Val Demings will head Congressional District 10 and newcomer Stephanie Murphy pulled a major upset in Congressional District 7.
It is the most diverse congressional delegation that Central Florida has ever seen – thanks to the Fair Districts constitutional amendment championed by the League of Women Voters and others and that took years of litigation to implement.
Once in place, it changed the gerrymandered district lines away from Republicans to more fairly represent Democrats in those areas.
The Biggest Upset
The biggest coup belonged to Stephanie Murphy, who won District 7 held by 12-term Republican Cong. John Mica, who complained of millions of dollars of “outside money” being poured into the district to defeat him. Certainly that is true; over $4 million was spent on behalf of Murphy.
But the redrawn district also picked up parts of Orange and Volusia counties, ending Mica’s 22 years of landslide GOP victories. In fact, Mica won Seminole County with 52 percent of the vote, but lost Orange County by about 20,000 votes.
As surprising and just as revealing, Donald Trump won “reliably red” Seminole by just 3,654 votes or 1.6 percentage points.
As political analyst Rick Fogelsong repeated earlier and on Election Night, “Seminole County is turning purple.”
In state races:
• State Rep. Víctor Torres (D) won State Senate District 15, previously held by Soto and which covers Osceola and parts of Orange and Polk counties.
• Amy Mercado (D) was the victor in State House District 48 in Orange County. Mercado and Torres are the first father-daughter and Hispanic team to go to Tallahassee.
• John Cortés (D) was re-elected to State House District 43, representing Osceola County.
• Carlos Guillermo Smith (D) will head up State House District 49, which covers Orange County.
• Bob Cortés (R) retained State House District 30, which includes parts of Orange and Seminole.
• René Plasencia (R) captured State House District 50, covering Brevard and Orange counties.
Emily Bonilla also pulled a surprise 57 percent upset against incumbent Ted Edwards for a seaton the Orange County Commission, District 5. Edwards was weakened by his support of a massive housing development east of the Econlockhatchee River, for years considered the line in the sand for protecting east Orange County’s fragile ecosystem.
Bonilla becomes the first Latina – and Puerto Rican – since Mildred Fernández to be on the Orange County Commission. Fernández was convicted on charges of illegal campaign contributions in 2012 and was sent to state prison. She cannot run for public office again.
For the first time, Kissimmee’s fast-growing Hispanic population elected a Latino to be its mayor. José Alvarez earned a resounding victory over Art Otero, 63 percent vs. 37 percent, ending a very contentious campaign that centered on whether Puerto Ricans would elect Cuban-American Alvarez over Puerto Rican Otero. They opted for Alvarez.
And despite being trailed by controversy early in his tenure as Osceola County Clerk of the Court, Armando Ramirez won re-election with 62 percent of the vote.
Watch Orlando Latino for more 2016 elections coverage.