Orlando, Florida - Puerto Rican migration to the United States, mainly to central Florida and driven by the blow of Hurricane Maria, can be compared in magnitude to the Mariel boatlift, the port where, in 1980, more than 125,000 Cubans crowded into boats to this country.
The motivations were different. Cuban migrants who left massively between April 15 and October 31, 1980 caused a shock to the government of Fidel Castro, as the massive flight of the so-called "Marielitos" was understood as the great sign of a crack in the revolution .
But it was also a blow to the place that received this human avalanche: the state of Florida, particularly Miami, because it was not prepared for such an exodus which, upon arriving massively, demanded with the same intensity medical services and education, among others.
"Although it was 37 years ago, the Mariel boatlift is the most immediate precedent of what is happening now with Puerto Ricans, who leave mainly to the central area after the hurricane, but we must make consider the fact that Cubans were not American citizens while Puerto Ricans are,” "said anthropologist Jorge Duany, referring to the ease that Puerto Ricans have of arriving and leaving the United States at any time.
The Puerto Rican migration after María resembles the Mariel boatlift because of the massive, sudden and chaotic way in which it is happening. And although Duany acknowledged that the Florida government has been proactive in taking steps to facilitate the integration of those who are arriving, the authorities themselves have expressed uncertainty regarding the magnitude of this wave.
But this government proactivity could have other ramifications: the impact of this sudden Puerto Rican population increase in future elections. "Puerto Ricans who arrive here will be able to vote in the elections and Governor Rick Scott has said he is going to run for senator. You see Scott looking for that Puerto Rican vote, "said Duany.
Even with the growth of the Puerto Rican population here, its participation rate is somewhat low. There is a tendency to think that Puerto Ricans are Democrats, but in the last elections Puerto Ricans have identified themselves as independent voting for candidacy and even favoring some Republican politicians.
"But I think they are still a big Democratic bloc that will favor Democratic candidates, as happened with Hillary Clinton," he said.
Several government voices have said that 500,000 Puerto Ricans could arrive in the United States as a result of the devastation that the hurricane left on the island, and argue that between 100,000 and 200,000 could stay in Florida.
The number could be higher. This week, the number of people who have traveled from Puerto Rico to Florida already exceeds 170,000, as confirmed by the Republican representative Bob Cortés.
Recently, the Center for Puerto Rican Studies of the University of New York (CUNY) released a study that projects a number of Puerto Rican migrants that is not far from this estimate. According to the study, between 2017 and 2019, Puerto Rico could lose 470,335 residents.
"It's an unusual population movement and I think migration forecasts are going to fall short," Duany said.
"This had not happened even during the 1950s migration, when 89,000 Puerto Ricans leave the island. In 2015 that figure had been already exceeded, "added the anthropologist and director of the Cuban Research Institute of the Florida International University.
Before 1980, public perception polls in the United States portrayed Cubans as enterprising people and relatives who had been looking to thrive, but after "the Marielitos" that perception turned negative. "They were seen as a burden, that they did not contribute to society, and films like Scarface even appeared, where the Mariel refugees were portrayed as criminals," he explained.
These social impacts have even modified the urban geography of Miami, where they were concentrated, and the consequences are still felt today because it is possible to see social stratification, where Cuban migrants before Mariel are separated from those who arrived with this wave.
"You see it in the urban space that reflects those differences and people are located in areas according to the year they arrived, their social class and even the color of their skin," he said.
With the arrival of thousands of Puerto Ricans in Florida, Duany estimates that similar behavior will occur and Puerto Ricans settle in areas where their families and friends are. This could produce an increase in the concentration of Puerto Ricans, such as the Kissimmee area. "The differences with other groups will be accentuated," he said.
And with that, there will be great pressure on services, housing and employment, said planner José Rivera Santana. "These movements are things that are not planned and, although programs for emergency aid are usually put into effect, they are transitory and there are no conditions to give continuity to that pressure," he explained.
As for the social aspect, if the migration process is not handled properly in the host country, the avalanche of people who arrive will create discomfort that could generate a rejection of the resident population towards immigrants, he said. "If the state that receives immigrants does not respond relatively quickly, tensions, conflicts and even resentment may arise in the existing population," said Rivera Santana.
The accelerator that hurricane Maria put in the migration process of Puerto Ricans to the United States is similar to that reported between the 1930s and 1940s, the Rivera recalled. In 1928, Hurricane San Felipe, a category five, hitPuerto Rico in the middle of an economic depression. "Then, the depression and the hurricane led Puerto Rico to a great migration and now it´s like history repeats itself," he said.
"There are things written on the wall. Migration will become more acute because the economic situation, which was the factor that caused it, will continue to worsen, "he said.
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