According to Gov. Rick Scott of Florida (R), Puerto Ricans have been fleeing the island at the rate of 2,000 per day. This means that at least 84,000 Puerto Ricans have come to the United States mainland since hurricanes devastated the commonwealth earlier this year.

Puerto Ricans have been fleeing the island at a rate of 2,000 a day, a huge hit to the hurricane-ravaged island, according to Florida Gov. Rick Scott. Other reports suggest that as many as 140,000 Puerto Ricans have migrated to Florida this year. There thus emerges the prospect of significant demographic and political changes for Florida and the rest of the country.

Puerto Ricans are American citizens and are allowed to vote for the US President if they live in one of the 50 states or in the District of Columbia. 

The uncertainty faced by government officials who are coping with the sudden influx of thousands of homeless and impoverished evacuated Puerto Ricans is coupled with a possible political impact. Florida is the third-largest state and has 29 electoral votes in presidential elections: which is a often won by a razor-thin margin. Donald Trump won Florida by less than 120,000 votes in 2016 when more non-Hispanic white voters came out for him for past Republican candidates.

Political impact

In the 2016 election, Donald Trump won 4,617,886 votes in Florida, while Hillary Clinton garnered 4,504,975. Trump won the 29 Electoral College votes offered by Florida, a winner-takes-all state. Should the influx of Puerto Rican voters, who largely favor the Democratic Party, shift the balance of the vote in Florida to the Democratic Party, the 29 Electoral College votes could be lost to Trump in the 2020 election. Overall, 270 Electoral College votes are required to win a presidential election. In 2016, Trump won 304 Electoral College votes. Should he lose Florida to a Democrat in 2020, he would have 275 votes, thus close to the 270 needed to win. The loss of the Electoral College votes from just one more state would mean losing his re-election bid.

At a November 2 conference organized by the Ripon Society, Reps. Sean Duffy (R-Wis.) and Tom MacArthur (R-N.J.) joined a discussion on next steps for devastated Puerto Rico. Speaking to the demographic and fiscal impact for the United States should more Puerto Ricans leave the island, MacArthur said, "I look at an island with 3.5 million people," adding, "3.5 million Americans who can leave at will. And they do — a thousand a day right now. Young people who don't see a future. They get on a plane and go to Florida. They land in Florida, and they become eligible for many things that they don't get in Puerto Rico. There's a brain drain underway on this island — that is first and foremost what I see as a problem," MacArthur said. The Ripon Society brings together what media and some observers have dubbed as moderate Republicans.

Officials in central Florida warned Gov. Scott earlier this month that the region cannot incorporate the thousands of evacuees coming from Puerto Rico if no arrangements are made for long-term housing, medical care, and employment. Scott met with local politicians and emergency management officials at the Osceola County Emergency Management Center just days after Florida raised its Emergency Operations Center to Level 2 status, on top of the state of emergency issued on October 2. At the meeting, Scott said that his staff will cooperate with cities about using trailers for housing and classrooms.

Demographic impact

Local officials are questioning whether FEMA and the state government have any long term plans for accommodating the evacuees. For example, Orange County -- which incorporates Orlando and DisneyWorld, has contracted with the United Way to provide short-term housing in about 100 hotel rooms. However, local officials have pointed out that the arrangement is unsustainable. Family members have taken in evacuees, officials pointed out.

Education for evacuated children is another issue. Osceola Schools officials told the governor that they have received an additional 1,300 students from Puerto Rico, on top of the 64,000 enrolled when the year began, which is equal to having two more elementary schools added.
 
The number of Puerto Ricans seeking to leave the island may grow. Currently, airport facilities are not fully functional nor are flights regularly available. Scott, who has visited Puerto Rico regularly, said that he has witnessed hundreds of thousands of people waiting to leave. He said, “And when I ask them where they’re going, the first thing they say is ‘I’m going to Kissimmee.’ Or ‘Orlando.’” The rebuilding and modernization of infrastructure in Puerto Rico, including the electrical grid, will take years, thus prompting more Puerto Ricans to leave.

According to the Orlando Sentinel, Marucci Guzman of Latino Leadership -- a nonprofit voter registration group based in Florida -- said that her group is telling people in Puerto Rico to find relatives elsewhere in the U.S. to take them in. “Go to where you have family, if it’s New York, if it’s Philadelphia, if it’s Kentucky. Go to where you have family because you’re not going to be homeless. Right now, you’re not going to get that immediate housing.” But of those who have come to Florida, she said, “They’re not leaving. The majority are not going to go. They’re going to be here, and they’re going to be productive members of our community.”
 



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Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat and the editor of Spero News.

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