160,000 residents flee Puerto Rico in search of opportunities in Florida | Global Resilience Institute

Over two months ago, Hurricane Maria moved across Puerto Rico, bringing 155 mph winds that wiped out power transmission lines and caused catastrophic damage. This left the U.S. territory in a vulnerable position, as its 3.4 million residents began their long wait for communication, electricity, and water systems to come back online. Many families who lost everything in the storm and faced the impossibility of the storm-ravaged conditions sought to migrate to the U.S.

Waritza Alejandro embraces her mother-in-law Maritza Ortiz, before boarding a flight to Tampa with her husband Christian Vega and their daughter Tiana, in Carolina, Puerto Rico, Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2017. The couple lost their home to Hurricane Maria. The disaster wrought by Maria has set off an anguished debate across Puerto Rico, where friends, family and co-workers are arguing fiercely over the morality of leaving the blacked-out island vs. staying to fulfill a patriotic duty to rebuild. (AP Photo/Carlos Giusti)
Waritza Alejandro embraces her mother-in-law Maritza Ortiz, before boarding a flight to Tampa with her husband Christian Vega and their daughter Tiana, in Carolina, Puerto Rico, Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2017. (AP Photo/Carlos Giusti)

At airports and ports across Florida, Puerto Ricans are arriving and seeking accommodations through their networks of friends and families in Miami, Tampa, Fort Lauderdale, and Orlando. According to state data as of November 16, a total of 160,000 Puerto Ricans had migrated to Florida since early October. However, even those who lack established connections or relatives in the U.S. have also been able to tap into the disaster-relief centers provided by the state of Florida or stay at FEMA-funded temporary housing within nearby hotels. The purpose of these centers is to provide newly arrived Puerto Ricans with resources to apply for benefits, jobs, schools, and housing.

In early October, under orders from Governor Rick Scott, the Florida Department of Education eased the transition of displaced Puerto Rican students into the Florida education system by waiving their rules and regulations. In addition to this, the Florida DOE waived the teaching certificate application fee, which allows for displaced Puerto Rican educators to continue their work at schools in Florida.

“As a result of the devastating effects of Hurricane Maria, families from Puerto Rico and elsewhere have relocated to Florida,” Education Commissioner Pam Stewart said. “Entire communities were destroyed and we do not know how long it will take to restore schools and other essential infrastructure. Therefore, it is critical that these students and teachers have the opportunity to participate in our state’s outstanding public education system. We are pleased to remove barriers to enrollment and help these students and teachers return to the classroom.”

Although this migration trend was exacerbated by Hurricane Maria, residents have been relocating from Puerto Rico for years due to its difficult economic status and vanishing job market. In 2014, 84,000 Puerto Ricans moved to the U.S., representing a net migration of about two percent given that only 20,000 people returned to the island.

Andrea Rodriguez, a student at Northeastern University, shared, “Years ago, my parents left Puerto Rico for New Jersey after earning their college degrees because they knew that the U.S. had more opportunities available to earn a stable income, access a more reliable health care system, and a safer living situation.”

Raul Figueroa, a demographer and an independent consultant to CNN, reported, “In the 1950s, most Puerto Ricans moved to New York,” adding that, “Florida has been the main destination in the last 10 years.”

It seems that Florida will continue to be the “main destination”, especially for those impacted by Hurricane Maria, as approximately 100,000 more people have booked their flights to fly into Orlando through December 31.

Lawmakers in Florida also have political concerns over the sudden influx of migrants. Some are beginning to wonder how this mass migration of Puerto Ricans might influence the state’s upcoming midterm elections and voter trends in the future. During the past two presidential and gubernatorial elections, the outcome was decided by a one percentage point difference. Therefore, it will be interesting to see whether the thousands of seemingly Democratic-leaning Puerto Ricans will influence a possible political shift in the currently Republican-controlled state. 


Suggested Reading

From No Power in Puerto Rico to Living in a Car in Orlando – Wall Street Journal

A Great Migration From Puerto Rico Is Set to Transform Orlando – New York Times

Gov. Scott Directs Florida Department of Education to Take Additional Action to Help Puerto Rican Students and Educators – Florida Department of Education

Puerto Ricans leaving island for U.S. in record numbers – CNN

An Exodus From Puerto Rico Could Remake Florida Politics – New York Times