The catastrophe in Puerto Rico has the potential to send tens of thousands of people to Florida, continuing a steady exodus from the economically depressed island. That could have wide ranging effects on services, but also politically, as Puerto Ricans have grown as a force in the state.
Last year, Democrat Darren Soto of Orlando became the first Puerto Rican member of Congress from Florida. Amy Mercado was elected to the Florida House, Victor Torres to the Senate and Emily Bonilla to the Orange County Commission, making her first Puerto Rican Democrat elected to that office. All three are Democrats.
But Republicans also are trying to make inroads. During the presidential primary, Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio both tried to lock down support in the community.
“I’m not Republican, but he represents us,” 44-year-old Luis Cruzado who, like many in Kissimmee, was born in Puerto Rico, said of Rubio during an interview with the Tampa Bay Times in July 2015. “He would be the first Hispanic. That feels good to me.”
Last year, Rubio won the primary in Puerto Rico. Rubio traveled to the island this week and has been a leading advocate for relief. Sen. Bill Nelson has also been pushing for a swift response. His potential 2018 rival, Gov. Rick Scott, will be in Kissimmee this afternoon to thank volunteers helping in Puerto Rico.
Politics will follow, but right now, the humanitarian concerns are at the forefront, and Florida could be bracing for a wave of Puerto Ricans leaving the island for good.
“Puerto Ricans are American citizens, they have the right to live anywhere in the country. They’ve certainly enriched Florida. My only view on it has been is that if people come to the mainland from Puerto Rico it should be because want not because they have to,” Rubio said in a news conference Tuesday.
“I would imagine state officials are looking at the short-term impact that that might have on schools and things of that nature. … The problem for the island is the more people who leave, the smaller your tax base, the smaller your economy and ultimately the harder it’s going to be to recover.”
Bonilla says as many as 100,000 Puerto Ricans could be moving to Florida in the coming months and has asked Orange County to be prepared.
“There are hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans living in the Central Florida region,” she wrote in a letter last week. “Traditionally, Puerto Ricans are very family oriented and will be more than happy and will insist on taking in family members who are having hardships,” Bonilla wrote. “Therefore, Orange County is possibly looking at a large migration of Puerto Ricans over the next couple of months, possibly over 100,000.”