The race to capture the Puerto Rican vote has begun. Last week the Republican Party of Orange County held a Lincoln Day Dinner honoring and welcoming Puerto Rican evacuees to the Orlando area.
It was a warning shot indicating the state GOP aims to fight for and win over Puerto Rican voters. The Democratic Party has not uttered much despite the wave of Democrat-leaning Puerto Ricans arriving daily in Florida – over 60 percent of Puerto Rican voters in Florida cast ballots for Hillary Clinton in 2016. Very likely, however, it is salivating over the prospect of turning purple Florida permanently blue.
Over 200,000 Puerto Ricans have arrived in Florida from Puerto Rico since the start of the hurricane evacuations in October, according to the office of Gov. Rick Scott. As American citizens, each Puerto Rican over the age of 18 is eligible to vote in Florida.
Three days before Ricardo Ramos resigned as chief of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, he blamed the government bureaucracy as a critical source of PREPA’s incompetence.
In a moment that received little attention and which is best described as the embattled Ramos’ cri de coeur, he told the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee member Sen. Mike Lee of Utah that “over 50 percent” of PREPA’s employment comprised political appointees – not the kind nominated by the governor but the kind elected officials of every political stripe in Puerto Rico utilize to provide employment for their people or mi gente.
For politicians, PREPA “even in its current bankruptcy is like the jewel of the crown in Puerto Rico,” Ramos said, adding “PREPA traditionally has been a company where politicians or parts of government can get their family members to get work.”
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 twin hurricanes of Irma and María are creating opportunities for public policies that were once objectionable or non priorities in Florida. As more hurricane evacuees arrive in Florida, state elected officials are scrambling to respond to the sudden influx of Puerto Ricans.
Here are a few examples:
Game changer – Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló recently asked FEMA for Transitional Shelter Assistance or TSA, which he had been reluctant to do before. And understandably so. TSA would give temporary housing assistance to hurricane victims, a financial incentive that would encourage people to leave the island. The governor can hardly afford a continued outflux of people. Currently, few Puerto Rico businesses are open and few people are working, which means nobody is paying taxes. The island is broke –hence, the $4.9 billion federal emergency loan – and getting older by the day as the proportion of elderly increases. If people suddenly have the means to move, many will come to Florida, as has been the case for over a decade. TSA helps the people but it hurts the island.
Forcing the hands– The continuing stream of Puerto Ricans into Florida – over 70,000 in the last month, according to the governor’s office – is forcing the hands of local elected officials. For instance, housing affordability is an ages-old regional issue. The Legislature raids state affordable housing funds each year. Now officials are tasked with the serious job of finding decent and affordable housing for new arrivals. Remember, it’s hard to land a job without a permanent address. One state representative mentioned tent cities. Others have talked about mobile homes or trailers. Would Central Floridians, Hispanic or not, accept this?
Jobs, jobs, jobs – The influx of working-age Puerto Ricans is a godsend for the region’s employers, many of which are desperately looking to hire. With a September state unemployment rate of 3.8 percent – essentially zero unemployment – Puerto Ricans represent potential new hires at a time when companies, from tourism to retailers, are engaged in Christmas or seasonal hiring. These may not be permanent jobs or good-paying jobs in our low-wage region. Nonetheless, they are jobs for people looking to earn money. Thus, employers will be among those pushing hard for a resolution to affordable housing issues for hurricane evacuees. Perhaps this also helps explain Gov. RickScott‘s – the jobs governor – “welcoming” Puerto Rican newcomers.