By Joe Guzzardi
Hurricane Maria, which made landfall on September 20, 2017, devastated Puerto Rico, and has created a Catch-22. Puerto Ricans are fleeing the island in the thousands, bound mainly for Florida, New York and Illinois where family and friends will embrace them. For departing Puerto Ricans, this is a bittersweet time. Leaving their beloved island is hard but born of necessity. For many, everything was lost – about 500,000 houses, cars and all earthly possessions – a “catastrophic event,” rarer than a disaster, according to University of Delaware sociology professor Tricia Wachtendorf, a catastrophe relief expert.
The Cuban Research Institute director at Florida International University, Jorge Duany, called Puerto Ricans’ movement to the mainland “a stampede.” Duany envisions that the Puerto Rican exodus to Florida will be so extensive that it could surpass the number of New Orleans evacuees who fled to Houston in 2005 in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Tens of thousands came to Houston, and remained long after New Orleans had been rebuilt. “I think everyone is going to leave – anyone who can buy a one-way ticket,” said Duany.
The more demanding Puerto Rican challenge, however, may still await the islanders. Relocating means finding new homes, often more expensive than their old ones, and trying to land jobs in cities where the labor markets are tight. It also means placing kids in schools where instruction will predominantly be in English.
For receiving states and municipalities, the new arrivals pose a different kind of trial. Although Puerto Ricans are welcomed with great compassion, in Florida’s major cities job competition already is keen, schools are overcrowded, and public services strained. So many Puerto Ricans arriving stateside so quickly will have permanent societal effects.
In 2015, during Puerto Rico’s bankruptcy crisis, Florida’s regional Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration director Betsy Franceschini helped new arrivals connect with agencies that could assist with essential services. Franceschini said that as overwhelming as the demands were two years ago, it’s nothing compared to the “unprecedented” exodus of Puerto Ricans trying to escape deteriorating conditions. Five months after Maria hit, one million are estimated to still be without power and a dependable water source.
Congress’ two-year budget bill included $16 billion in federal aid earmarked for Puerto Rico’s hurricane disaster relief, to replenish its near-bankrupt Medicaid system, and to shore up the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program to repair the destroyed electric grid. Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello had requested that Congress allocate $94.4 billion.
Looking beyond Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico faces a huge uphill climb. The island and Connecticut are similar in land mass and population; Connecticut is slightly larger, but both populations are about 3.5 million. But Puerto Rico is reeling under the weight of its 46 percent poverty rate; Connecticut’s, 9.8 percent.
During the week I recently spent in Puerto Rico, I spoke with dozens of residents about the island’s fate. I asked what employment a student fresh out of high school could expect. The unanimous answer: “None.” And for University of Puerto Rico graduates, I inquired what might await them. The reply: “Immediate relocation to the United States.” As U.S. citizens, Puerto Ricans can travel without restrictions to the mainland.
Unless Congress and the Puerto Rican government right the island’s ship soon, the mainland will have to deal with the long-term consequences – increased population growth, greater job competition especially at the low wage level, and greater demands on social services.
Joe Guzzardi is a nationally syndicated newspaper columnist who writes about immigration and related social issues. Joe joined Progressives for Immigration Reform in 2018 as a researcher after a ten-year career directing media relations for Californians for Population Stabilization, where he also was a Senior Writing Fellow. A native Californian, Joe now lives in Pennsylvania.
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