As influx of Puerto Ricans continues, Koch-backed group starts seeking them out in Florida

The Libre Institute is launching new outreach programs this week in the Orlando area that could soon be coming to Tampa and Miami.
Leonor Figueroa, 82, center, a survivor of Hurricane Maria, is surrounded by her daughters after arriving at the Orlando airport from Puerto Rico in September. [Washington Post photo by Joel Achenbach]
Leonor Figueroa, 82, center, a survivor of Hurricane Maria, is surrounded by her daughters after arriving at the Orlando airport from Puerto Rico in September. [Washington Post photo by Joel Achenbach]
Published Jan. 8, 2018|Updated Jan. 8, 2018

WASHINGTON – A massive influx of Puerto Rico residents displaced by recent hurricanes is transforming communities in Florida and other states, and a conservative group is moving quickly to woo them ahead of the midterm elections.

The Libre Institute, an offshoot of the Libre Initiative, a group backed by the billionaire Koch brothers, is launching new outreach programs this week in the Orlando area designed to provide English-language courses and civics lessons to thousands of Puerto Ricans living at least temporarily in Central Florida as the island continues rebuilding after deadly hurricanes Irma and Maria last fall.

Full power has not yet been restored on the island, and Florida officials say more than 300,000 people have at least passed through the Sunshine State from Puerto Rico in pursuit of new opportunities or temporary shelter. Thousands of young island residents have been enrolled in Florida schools while their parents seek work and housing.

Residents of Puerto Rico are U.S. citizens who can participate in presidential primaries but cannot cast a vote for president – unless they move to the mainland and register to vote. With hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans leaving the island, they are poised to transform several communities in Florida and bolster fledgling island communities in Georgia, North Carolina and Texas, while adding to their already large numbers in New Jersey, New York and parts of New England. The ongoing churn has the potential to transform the political dynamic ahead of November's midterms, especially in down-ballot races, in which even a few hundred new voters could make a difference.

The Libre Institute's "Welcome to Florida" classes will launch this week at the group's offices in the Orlando area, part of an initial $100,000 commitment by the group that is set to grow in the coming weeks as the program expands to centers in Miami and Tampa, two other parts of the state attracting Puerto Ricans.

The group is relying on partners such as Florida Hospital Orlando, Spanish-language radio stations and a network of churches across the region to help spread the word about the classes. State officials greeting Puerto Ricans arriving at airports in the state also are referring them to Libre for assistance, according to David Velasquez, deputy state director for Florida for the Libre Initiative, a sister group focused on political advocacy that is overseeing the courses.

"We're talking to a lot of people who've lost everything," he said.

As it has elsewhere since at least 2012, the group is offering English-language classes, courses on how to update professional licenses, and civics courses designed to highlight the group's focus on economic empowerment. What the classes will not include are direct appeals to vote for certain candidates or causes, because the institute is a nonprofit barred from direct political activity.

"We want people to make an educated decision for themselves. We really feel that in the Hispanic community, people need to know these topics," Velasquez said. "You have people coming to Florida from all over the world, and they don't understand how the system works. A lot of things get miscommunicated or misunderstood. So, we want to educate people about the principles that are close to our hearts, and then leave it to them."

In the past, Libre has offered driver's license classes, tax preparation help, wellness checkups, scholarships and food giveaways in Texas, Colorado, Florida and other states. It has bought ads touting the "free market," smaller government and school choice, and its officials are a growing presence on Spanish-language news stations, where they talk about the virtues of "self-reliance."

Daniel Garza, president of the Libre Initiative, said much of the group's work "is from personal experience." Garza, who grew up in South Texas, said his parents "worked too hard for too long until they hit a time of prosperity. It was over 20 years in the orchards working across America, with no English training and no citizenship – thus, barriers of opportunities."

"The people from Puerto Rico are citizens, but what we can do is help guide them to a place where they can remove those barriers and move up the economic ladder," Garza said.

Democrats and progressive organizations have sounded the alarm about Libre's work in the past, accusing the group of skirting nonprofit laws by handing out ideological material; collecting names, email addresses and phone numbers; and basically doing the early legwork that Republicans should otherwise be doing to win over new voters.

Doing anything to track down and even indirectly woo potential Latino Republican voters could be critical next year in Florida, which faces an open gubernatorial race, a competitive reelection fight for Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson and a handful of congressional races that could tip the balance of power in the House of Representatives.

Garza insisted that there will be "no specific advocacy for any specific issue or candidate."

"It's a win-win. They get the needed guidance and tools they're going to need to transition faster. But it's also an opportunity for us to educate them on the ideas that we feel make America strong – the principles of economic freedom, " he said.