REPORT: Displaced Puerto Ricans are fleeing to Florida

BY JILL CUENI-COHEN / JANUARY 7, 2018 /

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A new report from the Orlando Sentinel on Sunday states that “the flood of evacuees from Puerto Rico is reshaping schools, communities and public services, but the truth is nobody knows exactly how many islanders are moving to Florida permanently.”

Gov. Rick Scott has most recently claimed that 300,000 Puerto Ricans have relocated to Florida after Hurricane Maria hit the island in September, but University of Florida economists basing their estimates on school enrollments and requests for state aid are now questioning that number, saying it’s probably closer to 50,000 so far.

Scott’s number, on the other hand, represents people on commercial airlines flying from Puerto Rico to Orlando, Miami and Tampa — a statistic tracked by the Florida Division of Emergency Management. This figure would include business people, journalists, aid workers, contractors, government employees and possibly travelers who connected at Puerto Rico airports from other points of origin.

“We’ve had over 280,000 Puerto Ricans come here,” Scott said at a news conference in Jacksonville in December without explaining the context. Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs also referenced “300,000 people coming to the state” at a housing forum Thursday in Orlando that included Scott.

Rich Doty, GIS Coordinator & Research Demographer at UF’s Bureau of Economic and Business Research, says that the 300,000 figure is way too high. He explains that the most accurate number will come from schools, where children from the island are new registrations. Statewide, that number is about 11,200 for arrivals from Puerto Rico and the much smaller Virgin Islands.

Still, federal grant money relies on calculations of the number of people affected in order to help people find housing, skilled workers find jobs or school districts accommodate thousands of new students, points out the report.

Critics of the massive relocation efforts took to social media to warn that the new arrivals are peppered with illegal Mexicans and could be a way for Democrats to gain more votes.

“I’m a Puerto Rican iron worker. My family on the island says Island folks are being relocated to Florida by the thousands every day in an attempt to turn Florida blue,” wrote one Puerto Rican Trump supporter on Twitter. “Illegal Mexicans are being given voter I D that says they’re Puerto Rican in order to steal 2018 elections.”

“Orange County’s public schools have taken in 3,492 displaced children as of the last count,” according to a spokesman for U.S. Rep. Val Demings (D-Orlando).

“It’s our job to do everything in our power to make them and their families feel at home,” Demings said in a statement. “I’ll continue to facilitate and expand assistance to all evacuees from 2017’s catastrophic storms.”

Puerto Ricans who land in Orlando or Miami have been showing up in Jacksonville to seek work, said Nancy Quinones, president of the Puerto Rican Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Jacksonville.

“We’ve helped about 400 families here,” Quinones said. “It’s very hard to get statistics about this. Important to be accurate, but it is hard to know.”

According to the report “Since Puerto Rico’s 3.4 million residents are U.S. citizens, many might not register their move anywhere for a while, simply moving in with family or friends in Orlando, which had a huge and rapidly growing Puerto Rican population before Maria. For example, Orange County Tax Collector Scott Randolph had reported more than 20,000 Puerto Rico residents moving to the county in the 12 months before Maria.”