June 27 (UPI) -- After the turbulent 2017 hurricane season, thousands of Puerto Rico residents permanently settled in Florida, and their votes have become a much desired commodity for political candidates.
The current wave of Puerto Rican migration to the United States began more than a decade ago as the Caribbean island experienced a financial crisis and spurred the highest rate of growth among Latin groups in Florida between 2000 and 2010 -- about 76 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
"We used to talk about the Great Migration of Puerto Ricans after World War II, between 1945 and 1965, and of course the first thing to note is the current migrational wave is already larger than the so-called Great Migration in the post-war period," Jorge Duany, director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University and author of Puerto Rico: What Everyone Needs to Know, told UPI. "One difference is the sheer size of this migration stream, which began well before the hurricane but has accelerated in the past year or so."
Duany and FIU political science professor Eduardo Gamarra conducted a telephone poll of 1,000 Puerto Ricans who arrived in Florida in the last six years for insight on where they settled, what took them to the state, their future plans and political inclinations.
"They're here to stay. They will have an impact on politics in Florida from here forward and they will be a group that increasingly all political actors in Florida should begin to pay attention to," Gamarra told UPI. "It's not just about hurricane relief. It really is about how to establish their long-term presence in Florida."
Settling in the Sunshine State
The exact number of Puerto Ricans who have migrated to Florida after Hurricane Maria is unclear, but Florida Gov. Rick Scott estimated in January nearly 300,000 left the island after the storm, based on flight data from the island.
In March, six months after the hurricane, the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at The City University of New York conducted a study using enrollment numbers and change-of-address records to determine how many Puerto Ricans permanently resettled in the United States.
The study found more than 56,000 Puerto Ricans have migrated to the United States since the hurricane, with the largest concentration settling in central Florida, between Tampa and Orlando. CUNY also projected Florida will have the largest share of Puerto Ricans in the U.S. mainland following the post-Maria migration.
"Maria sort of sealed the deal and Florida became the preferred place for exit," Gamarra said.
Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens who are able to elect representatives to Congress, and are eligible to vote immediately.
"It's an urban presence primarily, and it's also fascinating because this is not an unskilled population. This is not a population of uneducated people, and so that makes it something quite interesting for Florida because you're receiving a significant presence of primarily urban workers and most have either a high school or a college education," said Gamarra.
He added, though, that many Puerto Ricans arrive with a lack of English language skills and a limited understanding of the U.S. political system.
Betsy Franceschini, a senior state director at the Hispanic Federation's Orlando division, said her nonpartisan nonprofit organization aims to register 20,000 Latinos in Central Florida to vote.
"Everywhere we go and every program we have, we talk about the importance -- how it works here and how you can connect. And I always tell people it won't be effective, it won't matter, it won't make a difference if we don't go out and vote," she said.
Courting the Puerto Rican Vote
Since Maria, political groups in Florida have ramped up outreach efforts to Puerto Rican voters, hoping to capitalize on the influx of those arriving from the island.
Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez traveled to Orlando last month and pledged the party will provide an "innovation grant" of at least $100,000 to the state party for for additional outreach.
Perez said the grant is intended specifically "to make sure that we are listening to Puerto Ricans and we are organizing in the Puerto Rican community.
"It's not simply asking people to vote ... it's also asking the existential question of how can we help," he said.
Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson and Scott, who's running for Nelson's Senate seat, have each visited the island since the hurricane and have scheduled political events in central Florida targeting Puerto Rican voters.
Earlier this month, Scott made his seventh trip to the island and appeared at the Puerto Rico P3 Summit to discuss hurricane recovery. Before he traveled there in January, February, March and May, he made trips in September and November.
Nelson, meanwhile, met with a group of about 100 hurricane-displaced Puerto Ricans in Washington, D.C., this month about a bill he introduced in May that would require the Federal Emergency Management Agency to continue providing them with housing assistance through at least February 2019.
A New Blue Wave?
Historically, Florida Puerto Ricans have leaned Democrat -- with almost 40 percent registering with the party in 2016. That's led some to believe the post-Maria migration wave may cause a shift in voter demographics throughout the state.
University of Central Florida political science professor Aubrey Jewett said an uptick in Puerto Rican immigration pushed Florida's traditionally-contested Osceola and Orange counties to lean more Democratic -- lending to the possibility islanders could represent a voting boon for liberal and progressive candidates.
"In district-based elections, it might not make much of a difference since we already see Puerto Rican and Democratic legislators already in office," Jewett said. "But in some more closely-divided districts ,and of course in the state, it could make a big difference."
Jewett added, though, that many Puerto Ricans who've voted Democratic migrated to Florida from New York -- while those affected by Hurricane Maria come directly from the island. The difference, he says, may be votes swayed by the GOP governor's frequent visits to the hard-hit island.
"Gov. Scott's strategy could pay dividends because there's probably a large group of Puerto Ricans that have come from the island that, if they registered, they may register with no party affiliation and they may be persuadable," he said. "They're not locked into the Democratic Party."
Gamarra also noted the Puerto Ricans who went to Florida after Maria represent a more diverse economic group than those who went before.
"It's very similar to other waves of immigrants," he said. "At first, those with money come and then others come who are less financially secure. Those who came after Maria now come from all social classes, they're not just coming from the upper classes."
Ultimately, Jewett said, the number of islanders sent to Florida by the storm is large enough to have an impact on this fall's key midterms -- and could end up favoring either party.
"If it's 50,000 more Puerto Rican people here and only half of those register to vote that's still significant," he said. "If most of those voters decide to go one way or the other, it could spell the difference between victory and defeat."