As Puerto Rico slides deeper into financial distress, flirting with default on July payments on its $72 billion debt, Puerto Ricans are leaving the island. They have been for a decade, in the largest outmigration since the ’60s.
“There’s so much uncertainty about what’s going to happen in Puerto Rico, it’s kind of crazy,” says Carlos Aponte, a 29-year-old native of San Juan who moved to New York last year so that his wife could pursue her medical residency.
The job opportunities here are a world away from on the island.
“My first job that I got here, I got paid twice as much as I was making in Puerto Rico, and you feel a lot safer,” says Aponte.
Aponte and his wife are not going back any time soon, and his ties to the U.S. have grown stronger as more of his family has moved as well. “Ten years ago they were all in Puerto Rico,” says Aponte. “Now most of them have moved here, and those that haven’t are probably looking to move.”
Edwin Meléndez, director of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College in New York says, “There has been a dramatic, tremendous exodus of Puerto Ricans to the United States.”
The No. 1 reason, according to the Pew Research Center, is work. Unemployment on the island is over 12 percent.
U.S. tax credits incentivizing companies to locate factories in Puerto Rico once made the island a hub for manufacturing. Those tax credits expired in 2006. Throw recession on top of that, and the island hasn’t recovered. Outmigration since 2000 has reduced Puerto Rico’s population by 200,000 — a trend expected to continue for decades. According to Pew, the population is expected to drop to around 3 million in 2050, down 20 percent from a peak of 3.8 million in 2000.
Meléndez says this creates a vicious cycle: “There are fewer jobs, people leave, and as people leave, there is less demand and there is less jobs and so forth.”
Isabel Rullán co-founded ConPRmetidos, a group that’s trying to promote investment and growth in Puerto Rico. She sees a silver lining in the exodus: “To have so many Puerto Ricans around the world gaining experiences, working in international companies, becoming part of international networks, we’re starting to look at Puerto Ricans leaving the island as assets that we have.”
Even if they don’t return to the island, Rullán envisions them helping out, linking businesses on and off the island, or offering expertise.
For his part, Aponte would love to return, but he says the time is just not right.
“There’s a debate about whether the people who are leaving are being cowards, forgetting about the island and not staying to commit to it,” he says. “It’s easy to say but so hard to do.”
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