There are the usual parking options at the international airport in San Juan, Puerto Rico. But as you leave the arrivals terminal today you’ll see a new fenced-in area of loose gravel with row upon row of vehicles, some looking like they might have been there for a while.
They have. These aren’t cars parked by travellers recently departed for a spring jaunt or business trip. They are cars people have left behind. “It happens all time, people are leaving. They come to the airport and abandon them like that,” lamented Max Dubuche, who runs a taxi and tour service on the island. “They know they are not coming back.”
Eight months after Hurricane Maria strafed every last acre of Puerto Rico, destroying its grid and plunging swathes of it into darkness for months on end, some degree of normality is returning. Trees stripped bare are timidly showing their new leaves and, in spite of another near island-wide blackout in April, most areas are finally reconnected to electricity and water.
Power lines can be restitched and hotels reopened, but for whom? For the tourists starting now to venture back on cruise ships and jetliners, perhaps. For wealthy mainlanders eyeing bargains along its sparkling beaches, maybe. But for many Puerto Ricans it’s already too little too late. Maria was the straw that broke the camel’s back and they’re gone. Or they will be soon.
The exodus from Puerto Rico traces back to 2005, when a recession took hold that never let go. The Pew Research Centre estimates that between 2005 and 2013 more than 500,000 people left the island for the mainland – 5 per cent of its population. Nearly 250 public schools closed in the same period. When it became apparent it had accumulated more debt than it could ever pay back a federal budget-oversight board was foisted on it and an austerity regime imposed.
But then came Maria and the population drain took on a whole new momentum. Because Puerto Ricans are US citizens, though with limited voting rights if they are on the island, keeping track of the exact numbers is tricky. But according to a report released by City University of New York’s Centre for Puerto Rican Studies (Centro), the island will lose an additional 470,000 residents by the end of next year as a direct consequence of the storm. Already there are more Puerto Ricans living in the 50 states than there are in Puerto Rico.
To those left behind it’s a grim picture. The majority of those fled or fleeing are the young and educated or established professionals like teachers, doctors, engineers and nurses. To make the island, which is a commonwealth of the US – neither a fully-fledged state nor a country under its own flag – viable again, you need to expand its workforce and tax base. The opposite is occurring. An additional 467 schools are set to close by 2022. Samaritan hotlines reported a 246 per cent increase in suicide attempts just between November 2017 and January 2018.
Perhaps more would have held on if the federal government’s response had been different. If Donald Trump hadn’t chucked paper towels into the crowd when he visited here and thought it appropriate; if anything like the resources rushed to hurricane victims in Texas and Florida last year had also come to Puerto Rico. Generators, roof tarps, satellite phones, fuel. If they hadn’t been made to feel ignored like foreigners even though their passports say they’re Americans.
But is the emptying out of Puerto Rico happening by design? Are darker forces at work? We had a not dissimilar debate after Katrina, thirteen years ago. Were so many of the black poor being deliberately displaced and relocated in Texas, to leave a healthier, less burdened New Orleans behind? A whiter New Orleans?
I’m no conspiracy theorist but two colliding phenomena happening in the US are worth considering. First, the anti-immigrant wave. Trump is still pursuing his Muslim travel ban and assails daily a caravan of asylum-seekers that crossed Mexico from Honduras and El Salvador and is now huddled against the border in Tijuana. On Friday, 50,000 Hondurans who have been allowed to live and work in the US since 1999 were told they must be gone in two years.
At the same time, just-released data shows the US with a startling 3.9 per cent jobless rate, the lowest in almost two decades. In tight labour markets, employers traditionally turn to new immigrants to keep the wheels turning, legal and also illegal.
You see the conundrum. An inconvenient reality for Trump and his supporters comes into view. So thank heavens for the Puerto Ricans suddenly flooding in, mostly to Florida but actually to every state in the union, bar Alaska. Industries of all kinds are courting them, from meatpacking plants in South Dakota to hotels desperate to fill summer vacancies in Disneyland and Dallas.
After Katrina struck, they physically put folk onto buses and deposited them in the Astrodome in Houston. Many never returned. That couldn’t have happened after Maria, right? Actually it did. This time Fema, the disaster aid agency, chartered planes and cruise ships to get people off the island and gave many of them hotel vouchers to stay on the mainland once they arrived.
We’d be giving the Trump folk far too much credit to suggest this was all planned from the start. That after Maria, Puerto Ricans were identified as the “acceptable immigrants” to help fill the gaps in the US economy that banning all others would create. Not that Americans can be termed immigrants. Migrants, yes. But just in case it’s true, we can console ourselves this way: most Puerto Ricans, once in the US, lean Democrat.
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