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What the Hurricane Maria migration will do to Puerto Rico — and the US

12 percent of locals left after Hurricane Katrina. How many will leave Puerto Rico?

Puerto Rico Faces Extensive Damage After Hurricane Maria
People wait in line to get a flight out of the Luis Munoz Marin International Airport in San Juan.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

Hurricane Maria has absolutely devastated Puerto Rico. Two weeks after the storm made landfall, the vast majority of the territory lacks power, and most households don’t have running water. The death toll is officially at 34 but could potentially reach into the hundreds.

So it’s no wonder that many of the territory’s 3.5 million residents are deciding to leave, at least temporarily, for the American mainland. “It will be a massive exodus,” predicts Edwin Meléndez, an economist, professor of urban affairs, and director of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College. “We’re talking about 100,000 to 200,00 people.”

That will have major ramifications for Puerto Rico — and for the US. If Meléndez is right, the exodus will exceed the Mariel boatlift, when tens of thousands of Cubans arrived in Florida, permanently shifting the state’s culture and politics. And while an intra-American migration is obviously different than arrival from a foreign nation, the mainland’s swelling Puerto Rican population is likely to change social life and politics everywhere from Florida to New York City and its suburbs to Pennsylvania.

As Meléndez puts it, “Everything has changed with Maria.”

The shape of Puerto Rican migration until now

Net migration out of Puerto Rico Pew Research Center

The Maria-fueled exodus is really an acceleration of a trend that’s been underway for years. Puerto Ricans are US citizens, part of the US labor market, and can take jobs and move wherever they want. And due largely to Puerto Rico’s economic crisis and persistently high unemployment, its residents have been leaving in large numbers in recent years.

Pew Research Center estimates that the Puerto Rican population peaked in 2004, and the territory lost 446,000 people between then and 2016, nearly 12 percent of the population. In 2015 alone, 89,000 Puerto Ricans left for the US mainland, and 64,238 of them have not returned. San Juan, the capital, lost about 10 percent of its population in the decade from 2005 to 2015.

The financial crisis and recession hit Puerto Rico slightly before the US as a whole, beginning with the end of tax breaks that Congress had offered manufacturers for locating in Puerto Rico. The breaks had allowed Puerto Rican subsidiaries of US companies to send earnings back to the mainland without paying federal corporate taxes. US politicians widely viewed this as an illegitimate corporate tax giveaway, and in 1996 Congress opted to phase it out gradually over 10 years. In 2006, the full brunt of the breaks' removal hit, and manufacturers, in particular pharmaceutical companies, began closing plants; an estimated 100,000 manufacturing jobs have been lost, with more indirect jobs going away as a result.

The result was a recession, worsened by the US mainland financial crisis and recession in 2007 and 2008.

Meanwhile, federal law had also caused an explosion in the territory’s public debt. Puerto Rican debt is “triple exempt” from taxes: Bonds issued by the territory’s government are exempt from state/territory-level, municipal, and federal taxation. There’s other triple-exempt debt in the US too, but you generally have to live in the place in question to enjoy it; Californians buying California state debt, for instance, get a triple exemption. Puerto Rico’s debt, however, is triple-exempt no matter who buys it. That naturally led a lot of people to want to buy it, giving the government a reason to take out lots of debt.

The sudden collapse of the territorial (and national) economy in the late 2000s made repaying that debt tough. That led to pressure for austerity policies that made the economic situation as experienced by ordinary Puerto Ricans even worse. Even now, after the continental US has largely recovered from the Great Recession, unemployment in Puerto Rico is above 10 percent; it peaked at 17 percent in 2010. The Census Bureau estimates the poverty rate at 43.5 percent. In those conditions, relocating to the mainland, which has always enjoyed far higher household incomes than Puerto Rico, starts to look very attractive.

“If you compare it to the historic periods where there’s been the greatest levels of migration, like after WWII and in the ’80s, the last 10 years are another one of those peaks,” Elizabeth Aranda, a professor of sociology at the University of Southern Florida who studies Puerto Rican migrant communities, says. “It might even surpass migration in the 1980s.”

Lyman Stone, an economist at the US Department of Agriculture who writes widely on migration issues, has used data on flights into and out of Puerto Rico to estimate migration levels in recent years; some of the flights are tourism, of course, but those are round trips, and the net direction of flights tells us a lot about where people are going:

In 2006 outflows began picking up, with a slight break as the recession made going to the US mainland less receptive. Over the past few years, the outflow has gotten really severe in scale.

Stone estimates that before Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico was seeing -2 percent net annual migration: About 1 in every 50 people was leaving every year. The resulting fall in population looks not dissimilar to what happened to Ireland during the 1840s famine.

On the flip side, this has contributed to a marked increase in the size of the Puerto Rican diaspora on the American mainland. Meléndez and his colleague Carlos Vargas-Ramos at Hunter's Center for Puerto Rican Studies estimate that in 2003, equal numbers of Puerto Ricans lived in the territory and on the US mainland — about 3.8 million in each. By 2016, the population in the US mainland had grown to 5.4 million, and the population in Puerto Rico had shrunk to under 3.3 million. Today, more than 60 percent of Puerto Ricans live outside the territory.

Much of that increase has happened in New York and Florida, the two states with the largest Puerto Rican populations. The increase in Florida has been particularly striking, where the number of Puerto Ricans (about 1 million) is starting to rival the number of Cubans (1.4 million). But the population has become more dispersed as well. New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and Massachusetts all have sizable Puerto Rican populations, and Illinois, California, and Texas are seeing theirs increase. Indeed, from 2015 to 2016 the Puerto Rican population in Florida and New York actually shrank, despite the national population increasing by more than 70,000 people (the largest increase was in Illinois).

What the hurricane means

There’s good research that suggests hurricanes and other natural disasters prompt people to migrate. Stone points to two recent papers in particular. One, by the University of Michigan's Parag Mahajan and Dean Yang, found that following hurricanes, immigration from countries that have large US diaspora populations increases. They define "large" as at least 0.86 percent of the population of the origin country.

The Puerto Rican diaspora population in the US is more than 100 percent of the origin territory's population, and unlike international migration, there are absolutely no legal limits on moving. If anything, that should amplify the hurricane’s migration effects greatly.

The second paper, by Princeton's Leah Platt Boustan, Michigan's Paul Rhode, USC's Matthew Kahn, and UCLA's Maria Lucia Yanguas, looks at internal migration in the US after all types of natural disasters, not just hurricanes. They find that "super-severe" disasters with 100 or more deaths substantially increase out-migration from affected counties, by nearly 3 percentage points.

And studies looking at specific large-scale catastrophes have found even larger effects. Using data from individual tax returns, University of Illinois's Tatyana Deryugina, Michigan's Laura Kawano, and University of Chicago's Steve Levitt found that Hurricane Katrina caused a 12 percent increase in out-migration. That’s a similar exodus in scale to the one UChicago's Richard Hornbeck and Columbia's Suresh Naidu found after the Mississippi flood of 1927, and that Hornbeck identified occurring during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.

We don’t yet know the precise scale of the migration Hurricane Maria will cause, or if it will reach the numbers those disasters did. But the immediate danger the disaster puts many into is a significant motive to leave.

“The longer it takes to restore essential services, like electricity, water, sanitation, and fuel distribution, the longer [and] harder it will be for the most vulnerable members of society to stay in Puerto Rico,” Elizabeth Fussell, a professor of population studies at Brown who has studied the Hurricane Katrina migration extensively, says. “These would be children and the elderly, the disabled, and those dependent on medicines or medical equipment.”

The economic barriers to migration are real but fairly low. While leaving one’s home is never costless, many airlines are capping fares in the wake of the hurricane; American Airlines has temporarily capped one-way coach fares from Puerto Rico at $99.

“The transaction cost is quite low,” Meléndez says. “What’s more significant is that where you go, you have someone to receive you. All Puerto Rican households will have a sofa bed. I got rid of mine because it was used too often.”

That’s crucial: Because there has always been a large Puerto Rican diaspora in the US, and it’s grown dramatically in recent years already, there are existing communities that exiting Puerto Ricans can join, likely with family members and friends they already know.

“Wherever you have established communities, you’re going to see some numbers of people going,” Aranda notes. That includes major hubs in New York and Florida, but also other smaller centers of Puerto Rican community like Illinois or Pennsylvania.

That, in turn, is likely to have political effects. While most destinations for Puerto Ricans are solid blue states (and Puerto Rican-heavy areas in the US tend to vote Democratic), Florida and Pennsylvania are another story. About 5.3 percent of Florida's voting-eligible population is Puerto Rican, as is 2.9 percent of Pennsylvania's. Florida Democratic Rep. Darren Soto, the first Puerto Rican elected to Congress from the state, has credited the Puerto Rican population with putting Barack Obama over the top in 2008 and 2012; that wasn’t enough for Democrats in 2016, of course, but the Puerto Rican population will be even greater in 2020.

What’s more, as Slate’s Henry Grabar notes, Puerto Ricans living in the territory are dramatically more conservative on social issues than the Puerto Rican diaspora, suggesting that moving to the mainland might be associated with moving left on certain policy issues:

The percent of Puerto Ricans who think abortion should be illegal drops from 77 percent (island) to 50 percent (island-to-mainland) to 42 percent (born on mainland); the percent who think same-sex marriage should be illegal drops from 55 percent (island) to 40 percent (island-to-mainland) to 29 percent (born on mainland).

This could just be an artifact of who chooses to live on the mainland. But if the pattern holds up, that will have intriguing implications for mainland politics in states with large Puerto Rican populations.

And the experience of the hurricane itself could shape the politics of people experiencing it. Mary Waters, a professor of sociology at Harvard who is working on a long-term research project with Fussell on Katrina migrants, notes that the experience appears to have suppressed survivors’ political involvement. “Almost everyone we spoke to said that Katrina made them even less politically active than they had been before,” she says. “They had not been active before the storm, and Katrina taught them that government was not looking out for people like them. They felt like it was useless to vote or to try to organize because government was unresponsive and did not care.”

What it means for the recovery

In the near term, migration will enable Puerto Ricans to escape the extreme economic hardship of a post-disaster island. But in the long run, their choice to either stay on the mainland or return home will have major effects on both.

“Most people start out thinking their move will be temporary,” Waters says. “Even now, 12 years after Katrina, people are still thinking they will move back to New Orleans. But temporary moves often lead to permanent ones as people get new jobs, kids start in new schools, etc.”

And it’s certainly the case that the past decades’ migrations have not been mostly temporary. Return migration has not come anywhere close to matching outflows. While some people are surely returning, they’re greatly outnumbered by the people exiting.

This creates challenges for the island’s recovery. Emigration undermines the tax base and reduces the labor market from which Puerto Rico can draw skilled workers for repairing infrastructure and conducting cleanup work. “I hope that they will find local talent to do most of this work and don’t bring people from the states to do more specialized work,” Meléndez says. “But nonetheless, the prognosis in terms of employment is still a question mark.”