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National gathering of Puerto Ricans seeks to pressure Congress, Obama

Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez shakes hands with immigrants before a hearing on immigration reform last year. (Photo by Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

Puerto Rican political, faith and civic leaders will convene in Orlando for a national meeting this week to develop a political agenda to pressure the federal government into taking action to help solve the island's fiscal crisis.

The meeting will mark the first time in decades that members of the Puerto Rican diaspora, including elected leaders such as Reps. Nydia N. Velazquez (D-N.Y.) and Luis V. Gutierrez (D-Ill.) and New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, will unite with leading thinkers and activists from across the country to forge a political consensus that responds to issues affecting the island and its inhabitants.

"We basically want to come together to tell the powers that be that the U.S. has responsibility over the economic crisis in Puerto Rico," said Jose Lopez, executive director of the Puerto Rican Cultural Center in Chicago and one of the organizers. "The U.S. has to own up to that responsibility, and the political parties have to take the issue of Puerto Rico seriously."

Puerto Rico, a territory of the United States since 1898, has struggled to emerge from a massive $72 billion debt burden and protracted recession that has sent tens of thousands of islanders stateside. Florida, and specifically Orlando, has become the destination of choice for that migration as jobs and opportunity evaporated with the crumbling economy of the commonwealth. Their modern migration narrative, however, has shifted their political and social calculus.

The recent island exodus has exceeded the numbers from earlier waves of Puerto Ricans who arrived in the northeastern United States, particularly New York, during the 1940 and 1950s. Puerto Ricans of the "Millennial Migration" are not only coming in larger numbers, but they are also dispersing into communities outside their historic destinations, said Edwin Melendez, director of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College.

Puerto Ricans in Florida, now more than 1 million strong, have changed the political conversation there and are second to Cuban Americans as the largest Hispanic voting bloc there. They are also concentrated and spreading in Pennsylvania and Ohio and, increasingly, in Southern states such as Texas -- all places that could have political implications for both parties. Historic allegiances to Democrats in the Northeast mean less to the recently arrived migrants settling in the South.

Nationwide, there are more than 9 million Puerto Ricans. But those living on the island -- about 3.4 million -- cannot vote in federal elections despite being American citizens. Their influence on family members in the states, however, is marked each election season when presidential candidates make stops on the island.

"It's a very interesting moment, different from anything we know," Melendez said. "It gives you the opportunity to have much wider political base for the things that are happening in Puerto Rico."

Organizers are seizing that moment on Oct. 14 to craft a national agenda they hope will transcend divisions and present a united voice to Congress, said Betsy Franceschini, director of Florida’s Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration. The agenda will likely touch on not only the island's fiscal crisis, but ongoing controversies about Medicaid reimbursements rates there, the island's right to declare bankruptcy and calls to release Puerto Rican political prisoner Oscar López.

The agenda, she said, will guide members of the Puerto Rican diaspora on how to make an impact at the ballot box. For the first time, Puerto Ricans now living in Florida will vote for one of their own in a Democratic congressional primary in 2016. State Sen. Darren Soto (D) is vying to represent a district that comprises thousands of central Florida Puerto Ricans.

"Presidential candidates, Congress and those who seek election will need to take into account the Puerto Rican vote," she said. "We are going to ask them about their positions on our agenda, and then we will know who to vote for.

Organizers are also hoping their agenda will send a message to their fellow Latinos across the country to include the island in a broader Hispanic strategy for 2016.

"Puerto Ricans have embraced a Latino agenda based on the issue of immigration," an issue that does not directly affect them as U.S. citizens, Lopez said. "We are saying to other Latinos that they need to think about our presence and the issues of Puerto Rico."

Maintaining coalitions like the one organizers are building have failed before, Melendez said. Puerto Rico's divisive island politics and partisan alliances have broken past efforts to unite the population. Though the current coalition of Puerto Rican politicians, nonprofit leaders and professionals is in its infancy, the gathering in Orlando is an indication of the political maturity of the stateside community, he said.

"They are accepting the challenge of a new reality," Melendez said.