Her job instability in a government agency under annual professional services contratcs, as well as frustration with her career, pushed Ninette Quiles to look for a change.
She had job interviews on the island, one after another, but got nowhere. She was not seeking to leave Puerto Rico, but after applying for a job she found on social media, in July 2021 she began working remotely for a non-profit organization. In September 2021, she moved to Washington, D.C.
“I didn’t decide to leave because ‘Puerto Rico got too small for me’ or because I was fed up... It was that the job opportunity came up, it was just what I was looking for, and I took the leap,” said Quiles, who worked as a lawyer on the island, but left with the intention of leaving the legal practice.
She noted that her salary in the U.S. capital is less than what she earned, since 2017, as a contractor at the Department of Education, but the stability working for a nongovernmental organization, as well as the fringe benefits, compensate for the loss of income and the move.
“I didn’t find anything in Puerto Rico. I looked, and I tried to stay. I went to interviews, to second interviews, to places that contacted me, but either they didn’t offer me anything or the salaries were very low. I tried because I didn’t want to leave Puerto Rico,” she said. “I could not continue with the uncertainty of not knowing whether they were going to renew my contract, besides the environment was not the best,” she added.
Like Quiles, in 2021, thousands of Puerto Rico residents decided to leave.
However, the most recent data reflect a slight decrease in the migration of Puerto Ricans. When calculating the number of people who entered the island and those who left, in 2021, some 27,000 people migrated to other U.S. jurisdictions, known as the net out-migration figure, the Statistics Institute indicated based on Census Bureau Community Survey estimates released in September. For 2019, the net out-migration balance “was close to 35,000 people,” according to the Statistics Institute analysis.
These are the first figures that begin to show trends of “the social and economic changes in the wake of the COVID-19″ pandemic, said the Statistical Institute’s Statistical Projects Manager, Alberto L. Velázquez-Estrada, in written statements.
Even with the reduction, the trend that has been reported over the last decade of population loss was of about 1 percent due to migration continues.
“What this trend indicates is that we are going to continue losing population. The loss continues, we have a net negative balance,” said demographer Judith Rodríguez.
“I thought it was going to be lower (in 2021) because there were some circumstances that could have influenced people not to migrate, such as COVID, but people left anyway,” she added.
Community Survey data show that in 2021, there was a reduction in both the number of people who left the island and those who settled in Puerto Rico. The number of people who moved from the United States decreased by 12 percent when compared to 2019, the Statistics Institute noted. In 2021, 27,380 people arrived on the island, while two years earlier there were 31,144. Likewise, last year, 54,669 people relocated from Puerto Rico to the United States, while in 2019, the figure was 66,021 people.
Rodríguez highlighted that there is no information available for 2020, as there were no Community Survey estimates due to challenges at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Among those who left for the mainland, the Community Survey details that more than 20,300, or 57 percent, completed post-secondary education or a college degree. Specifically, of the total number of migrants by 2021, 20.3 percent had a bachelor’s degree and 16 percent completed graduate studies. This figure is above the average for Puerto Rico residents, as 7.9 percent of the population has completed graduate studies.
That professionals leave the island is not entirely surprising, since there are not many opportunities for all the people who invested in their education to earn what they need to cover their basic needs and the debts they may have accumulated to study, said anthropologist and professor of the Department of Social Sciences at the Pontifical Catholic University of Puerto Rico Waleska Sanabria.
“We see it in the medical class, doctors who are leaving,” she said. “Anyone who has degrees and diplomas, that took effort, time and money, and they don’t always get the minimum wage to stay in the place that helped them complete their studies,” she said.
In economic terms, the unemployment rate among U.S.-based Puerto Ricans fell by 40.1 percent between 2010 and 2021 (16.2 percent vs. 9.7 percent), according to the CUNY Hunter College Center for Puerto Rican Studies’ socio-demographic data platform of Puerto Ricans in the United States. On the island, during the same period, the unemployment rate fell by 31.4 percent (from 19.1 percent to 13.1 percent).
According to information available in the same database, the per capita income for individuals on the island in 2021 was $14,176, while, for Puerto Ricans in the United States, it was $26,504. Between 2010 and 2021, the fastest-growing sectors among Puerto Ricans in the United States was products, transportation, and handling of materials, with a 19.7 percent increase in the number of employees from the island.
Problems still not solved
“The economic factor is always going to be the main (cause of migration), but it is a multi-factor phenomenon, above all, with what the literature tells us about what are the compound and cascading disasters that have happened in our region,” Sanabria said.
The 2017 hurricanes Irma and María, the earthquakes that began in 2020, economic problems, the political crisis that triggered the Summer of 2019 and the resignation of former governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares, the COVID-19 pandemic and, most recently, Hurricane Fiona last month are events that make up the cascading disasters that Sanabria studies.
“All of that somehow comes together and, even though it’s gradual, it causes migration, even though right now we do not see it as fast as we saw after María. But migration is based on this whole set of what we call socioeconomic and political disasters that have not been resolved for this or that reason,” she added.
Demographer Rodríguez agreed that migration is mainly motivated by the search for a better quality of life. For example, she pointed out that it is not only about increases in electricity costs but also about outages that interrupt professional and personal work.
“Because of the relationship we have with the United States, people come and go. If they want to avoid migration, what they have to do is to fix things so that people do not leave. We have to look at what makes people leave the island and address it,” Rodríguez said. Data on the migration of Puerto Ricans to jurisdictions outside the United States is scarce.
Migration also poses a medium- and long-term challenge for the island, said the demographer, who for years has pointed out the lack of planning for an aging population. The lack of access to health services, especially outside the metropolitan area, as well as the poor state of infrastructure - which was further aggravated by Hurricane Fiona - are problems that must be addressed as a priority, said Sanabria.
Migration data also show how people are returning to live on the island, a phenomenon that drew attention when an increase was seen among those who had left after Hurricane María. Although the numbers are lower, this, the anthropologist added, sometimes responds to an emotional element, what she described as “longing for the homeland.”
“The ironic part is that people are aware that, in the United States, things are not Disney-like either. The U.S. is not free of racial, economic, and ethnic conflicts… People are aware of that and they are going to take the risk due to the current scenario we are living, one of the characteristics of which is the frequency with which the crises and these compound disasters are happening, they do not give us a break”, Sanabria said.