Hurricane Maria may trigger a major wave of migration from Puerto Rico to Florida and New York something that could be bad news for US President Trump since most Puerto Ricans are Democrats.
One possible immigrant is Franchesca Rivera, a 32-year-old schoolteacher at Aibonito, a town in the center of Puerto Rico that has been destroyed by the hurricane. “I need income. If classes do not start, I’ll leave in a month,” says Rivera, whose house was among the few standing after the megastorm.
Her three and seven year old sons run around amid what were the chicken farms and Easter flower farms key to Aibonito’s economy. They were wiped off the map by Maria. She lost $ 80,000 in flowers, her husband’s business.
She plans to go to Tampa, in central Florida, where she has family. And she does not know if she will come back — certainly not in the short term.
That’s the case for many Puerto Ricans who have family or friends and a place to stay on the US mainland. After New York City, central Florida cities such as Orlando — with its thousands of theme park jobs — Tampa and St Petersburg are among the biggest draws. Yet in balmy Florida, Puerto Ricans feel a bit more on their home turf.
Many from the Caribbean island of 3.4 million fault Donald Trump for responding too slowly to the catastrophe. Trump denies the claims and says local leaders mismanaged and politicized the situation.
Conditions on the island are so difficult that those who can leave, leave. “Everyone is trying to get out. Everyone: middle class, upper class, lower class, everyone, either for a short time or for good,” says Professor Astrid Arraras, from the Department of International Relations and Politics at Florida International University (FIU).
“It’s going to be very widespread,” adds Jorge Duany, an anthropologist specializing in migration at FIU. “It is not clear if they are people who are going to stay permanently. But it is quite clear that there will be an even greater exodus because of the hurricane.”
Puerto Rico is a US territory. Though Puerto Ricans are US citizens with US passports, they can only vote in presidential primaries.
If they live on the island, they cannot vote in US presidential elections. If they are living on the mainland, they can register to vote including for president, in whichever state they live.
Of the five million Puerto Ricans living in the United States mainland according to US Census figures for 2015, one million reside in Florida.
Most have come since 2006 because of the financial crisis on the island, which went bankrupt with a $ 74 billion debt.
And the Puerto Ricans, traditionally Democrats, will be arriving en masse to a state that gave the presidency to the Republican Trump. “Definitely an influx of Puerto Ricans could have a political impact in Florida,” in that regard, says Duany.
“And I think they could have an economic impact also in terms of businesses and businesses that have been created here,” he adds.
The new exodus will have a cultural impact, too. They may be Americans, but Puerto Ricans are Hispanic, salsa-dancing, Caribbean, Spanish-speaking and family-oriented.
For a long time, northern Florida leaned rural, conservative and white. Now it is likely to help Florida become more Hispanic, and lean more Democratic.
“Although some are bilingual, they maintain their Latino culture and all this will reinforce Florida’s Latinization,” Duany says.