More Puerto Ricans are leaving the island and relocating to the South

Before most moved to New York and Florida, but now they are migrating to unlikely destinations

(Ricardo Alcaraz/2013)

"During the holidays, they wished me a happy 'first Christmas' in America," said Reinaldo Forti, 24. "It blew my mind, but then I thought that some people here have never seen a Puerto Rican before."

Right after graduating from the University of Puerto Rico, Forti found work at the Arkansas Department of Human Services in the city of Bentonville. He and his entire family moved there without a second thought.

"My parents found jobs here pretty quickly," he said. "Even though it was a difficult decision to leave home, we also realized it would be good for my younger siblings."

In this new migration wave, Puerto Ricans are relocating to unlikely destinations like Forti did. That's also the case of Edna Ramírez, 39, who moved to Leeds, Alabama in the winter of 2011.

"We've never even heard of Leeds, but my husband found a job after being unemployed for a while and we said 'Why not?'," she said. "It was definitely an odd choice though."

"Historically, New York and Florida have been the destination of choice for thousands of Puerto Ricans," said José R. Rodríguez, demographer and professor of Sociology at the University of Puerto Rico.

But today, more people are moving to other places such as Mississippi, which saw the biggest increase in Puerto Rican population during the last five years, or Tennessee, which is the one of the states with an already substantial Puerto Rican population that also saw a steady increase in the same period.

"El Nuevo South": its consequences in and out of Puerto Rico

According to the census, the population in Puerto Rico has suffered a sustained decrease since 2000. Latest data has shown that in 2013 alone, 74,000 Puerto Ricans left the island.

The decline will shrink the island's tax base, lower demand for goods and services and reduce investment.

With more Puerto Ricans migrating to the U.S., today the diaspora is bigger than the population in the island with 4.9 million Puerto Ricans living in the mainland versus 3.5 million who are back in the island.

This new trends have become part of what's called "El Nuevo South" or "The New South," according to Edwin Meléndez, director of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College.

"With the influx of Hispanics in the South, it's now becoming more diverse than before," said Meléndez.

In 2010, approximately 30 percent of Puerto Ricans lived in the South, twice the proportion it held in 1990, according to a study by Carlos Vargas Ramos, researcher at the Center for Puerto Rican Studies.

In fact, Vargas Ramos wrote that the South trebled its Puerto Rican population in those twenty years: from 400,000 in 1990 to 1.3 million people in 2010.

Florida, Texas, Misssissippi, Alabama, Arkansas and Tenessee are some of the states that have seen an increase of Puerto Ricans in the last decades, according to the report.

Why are they leaving Puerto Rico?

One of the main reasons for the mass exodus is that the economic situation in Puerto Rico has been dire for a long time.

The unemployment rate in Puerto Rico iss almost 14 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the nation is struggling to pay off a $73 billion public debt.

Puerto Rico is also struggling with an eight-year long recession, which was in part caused by Congress' 2006 decision to end corporate tax breaks to American companies that invested in the island. This resulted in the loss of thousands of manufacturing jobs as companies cut back on employment.

The increase in criminality rates, the recent implementation of new taxes and the increase in water, electricity and gas prices have also strongly influenced the decision of many Puerto Ricans.

More have said they plan to do so as well following the recent announcement of a new tax reform bill proposed by Governor Alejandro García Padilla, which proposes a 16 percent impuesto de valor añadido (IVA) or value-added tax (VAT). The national opposition has been fierce and many have played off the tax acronym with the phrase, “IVA: Imposible Vivir Aquí”, which means literally “it’s impossible to live here.”

A natural step

In her research paper La Fuga de Cerebros en Puerto Rico: su Magnitud y sus Causas (“The Brain Drain in Puerto Rico: Its Magnitude and Causes”), María Enchautegui, senior research associate at The Urban Institute and former professor of Economics at the University of Puerto Rico, found out that one out of every four Puerto Rican graduates migrate to the mainland.

Even though the decision to leave is always painful, given the U.S. passports carried by them it has become a natural step for young professionals and entire families. However, no one can guarantee an easy transition in the mainland, Enchautegui explained.

“Even if passports and visas are not necessary when traveling from Puerto Rico to the States, in many aspects Puerto Ricans are still treated like immigrants,” she said. “The physical distance between the island and the mainland, the Spanish language and the Puerto Rican history and traditions separates them from the rest of the United States.”