Last week, I received a text message from Luz, a recent evacuee from Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico currently residing in a New York City hotel paid by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. A few days earlier, we had spoken about her anxieties regarding her uncertain future after the FEMA voucher program ends. But now she wrote with reassuring news: Her hotel stay had been extended until March, which would give her ample time to continue looking for a new job and home. Like thousands of others, Luz has used the FEMA Transitional Shelter Assistance program not as form of temporary shelter while rebuilding her damaged home in Puerto Rico, but as way to relocate and start a new life on the mainland.
Since Hurricane Maria, nearly 300,000 Puerto Ricans have left for Florida alone. At first, most of those leaving were elderly, disabled or in need of critical medical care. Now planes are leaving full of young people economically stranded in the post-Maria landscape. These departures will only compound the already historic migratory wave caused by the island’s fiscal crisis, possibly resulting in an overall 25 percent population loss by the end of the decade.
In an attempt to pressure the federal government for more aid to hurricane victims, some local officials, including Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, have rallied these fast-growing migration rates as a threat. In a political climate dominated by xenophobia and the politics of closed borders, one might expect that an influx of Latino evacuees to the mainland would be unwelcome. However, throughout the United States evacuees are sought after and even recruited. In the face of expected labor shortages caused by President Trump’s anti-immigration policies, many employers are eager to hire bilingual workers for whom the minimum wage of a U.S. state represents a significant boost in income.
Both the federal and Puerto Rican government have facilitated the exodus. In the absence of a true plan for recovery on the island, migration has become a form of disaster relief. For the first time in the agency’s history, FEMA created an “air bridge” and chartered cruise ships to evacuate residents. Initially, new arrivals had to seek shelter with family members or in homeless shelters, but they are now being offered hotel stays for up to three months. Traditionally, FEMA offers temporary shelter to homeowners who have been affected by a disaster while they carry out the arduous task of rebuilding. However, in the case of Maria, that rebuilding has been severely stalled by the lack of electricity and running water, and the inability of the U.S. government to supply even the most basic materials, such as tarps.
Those leaving are not just escaping destroyed homes, they are also fleeing a shattered economy. Nearly four months after the storms, many restaurants, stores and offices remain closed — either because of structural damage or the financial hardship of operating on generators. Most hotels are operating with reduced personnel serving only FEMA workers, and some, like El Conquistador in Fajardo, have laid off almost all their workers. Just last week, Walmart, the largest private employer on the island, announced it was closing three of its Sam’s Club stores, including one that had not opened since the storm. Meanwhile pharmaceuticals, which account for nearly half the manufacturing jobs on the island, are carefully weighing their options after the GOP tax bill treated Puerto Rico as a foreign jurisdiction, despite its status as a U.S. territory.
Employers on the mainland have been quick to take advantage of this economic disaster. In South Dakota, a turkey plant manager saw in the news of the hurricane an opportunity to recruit workers fleeing what to his eyes looked “like a third world country.” The company provided airfare, to be deducted from paychecks over time.
Likewise, the Hospitality Staffing Solution firm has been holding local job fairs to recruit temporary hotel workers to places such as North Carolina, Georgia and Kansas. Across Florida — the state with the largest number of new arrivals — job fairs have been organized with employers from the construction, health-care and hospitality industries hiring interviewees on site. In places like Ohio, there is hope that those displaced by the storms might revitalize towns that have yet to recover from the decline of the steel and motor industries, which led many of those laid off to move elsewhere. In Texas and Florida, developers hope that Puerto Rican labor will alleviate an expected shortage of construction workers as their own hurricane recovery gets underway.
These job fairs began long before Maria. Over the last decade, teachers, police officers, doctors, nurses, even engineers were being directly targeted by both public and private employers. In Houston, where roughly one third of schoolchildren are native Spanish speakers, school districts were already conducting multiple recruitment trips per year to the island. Police departments in Dallas, Charlotte, Baltimore, and Washington all turned to Puerto Rico as they sought to diversify their departments with more Latino officers. Recruiters lure workers with what appear to be high salaries when compared with the depressed incomes of an island in crisis. However, these jobs often become demotions as workers must recertify and reenter their industries from the ground floor.
It may be coincidental that the influx of Puerto Ricans displaced by the storm coincides with the expiration of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and, most recently, the end of temporary protected status for Central American and Caribbean migrants who had also fled natural disasters. However, that Puerto Ricans were being aggressively recruited long before the storm reminds us that the island plays a key role in U.S. labor markets. The fact is that the increased criminalization of migrants — a move that predated Trump’s election but that has become official ideology during his presidency — places the United States at risk of losing an immigrant working class that, however politically popular it is to disavow, is central to the nation’s economic growth.
The use of Puerto Rican workers to supplement immigrant labor is not a new phenomenon. As residents of a U.S. territory deemed by the Supreme Court to be “foreign in a domestic sense,” Puerto Ricans have long blurred the lines between citizens and migrants. In the 1940s, when the United States sought to address labor shortages after World War II, the Puerto Rican Farm Labor Program operated in tandem with recruitment initiatives like the Bracero program that brought workers from Mexico. Although they are U.S. citizens, the depressed wages on the island have long placed Puerto Ricans in a pool of underpaid labor that supplements the work of immigrants.
For the Puerto Rican government, the current migratory wave provides an escape valve. The corruption, mismanagement of funds and inexplicable delays in the restoration of public services after the storm would have surely resulted in mass protests, were it not for the fact that so many have simply left.
Again, this is not new. Migration has long served as a form of governance on the island. In the 1940s, the displacement of agricultural workers through U.S. guest worker programs was central in transforming the island into a glittery “showcase” of American-led modernization. The Puerto Rican Department of Labor was the only agency of its kind to have an official migration division, with charter offices throughout the United States. The facade of prosperity that was once billed as the result of Puerto Rico’s relationship to the United States came at the expense of the exile and labor of those sent far from its shores.
In the wake of the fiscal crisis, economic policies put into place by both the federal and local government — including furloughs, wage cuts and higher prices for the working poor, combined with tax breaks to lure foreign investors — had already begun to fuel a mass exodus. Government policies following the hurricane have only accelerated that. Since the storm, organizations typically devoted to aiding international refugees have found themselves tending to these displaced U.S. citizens instead.
At a recent event in Kissimmee, Fla., Roselló denounced Trump’s recent anti-immigrant comments and called upon recent migrants to follow the example of Cuban exiles by organizing as a voting block across party lines for the 2018 midterm elections. It is too soon to say what impact these new arrivals will have on federal policy toward the island or on the anti-immigrant sentiment that has been fueling under the current administration.
But at the hurricane recovery center in New York, Luz had already sought out instructions on how to obtain her city resident ID card. And she had also registered to vote.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Roselló as Pedro Roselló. Pedro Roselló, a former governor, is the current governor’s father.