Immigration has become a prominent topic, closely associated with the international economic situation and the conflicts in the Middle East; a phenomenon where Puerto Rico figures notably for its singularity. We are a divided nation, residing in the Island and in the United States. For the first time in our history, the ones outside number more than the ones in the Island and for the first time the population in the Island has diminished.
Demography is a crucial subject of study, it provides the most essential category to develop our sense of collective self. It has been estimated there were 100,000 natives when Colon arrived in 1493, rapidly diminishing due to abuse and diseases. By 1410 there were 300 Spaniards and by 1646 it was 8,000. Population grew very slowly until the 18th Century when the O’Reilly Report activated policy promoting settlement. In 1765 there were 44 thousand residents, it grew to 70 thousand in ten years.
The 19th Century begins with 155 thousand and closes with 953 thousand. Since then until very recently there had been a steady growth of population. In the 20th Century we were 1.5 million in 1930, 2.3 in 1960 and 3.9 in 2010, since then we have begun to depopulate. There are 3.5 millions Puertoricans living in the Island and 4.6 living in the continental United States.
Immigration, when Puerto Rico was a Spanish colony, was scarce. In the 19th century some commerce had been established with the United States and a handful of us went to trade. From 1898 to 1949 migration to the States is considered scarce, with 90 thousand leaving in that period.
From 1940 to 1950 the rate went up to 8.8 and between 1950 and 1960 to 19.9, the highest up to now. An average of 43 thousand a year, dropping significantly to pick up in the 70s to peak in the last five years. 61,099 left the island between July 2013 through July 2014, 86,659 left between 2014 and 2015, an increase of 69%. From 2010 to 2014 the average departures were 53 thousand a year, surpassing the record high of 47 thousand in the fifties. One of the differences between the migratory wave in the fifties and now is that the ones leaving now are older with a higher education.
Dr. Maria E. Echautegui reports in her study “La Fuga de Cerebros” (The Flight of Brainpwer) that there has been a sustained wave of migration (% of born Puertoricans residents in the United States) since the seventies. The departure of the highly qualified is a matter of grave concern: one fourth of Puerto Ricans born in the Island with university degrees live in the States. Physicians and engineers have the highest rates and twice the possibility of migrating.
And why do they leave? A lot has to do with laws and immigration policies, demand for labor, recruitment, minimal wage together with the size and absorption capacity of the markets. Historical and political reasons also mediate here. The determining factor in Puertorican immigration is the Jones Act that made us American citizens and opened the doors to the US with out a passport or visa. The economic situation was not encouraging and the means of transportation were not readily available until the forties. The airplane turned into an available option and the US economy underwent its postwar expansion.
Puerto Rico also has undergone significant changes. Operation Bootstrap adopted a model of economic development focused on industry, abandoning agriculture without enough capacity to absorb the liberated labor force. Immigration started, first from the country to urban centers where slums became transient locations in the flight north. And so Puertorican communities were formed in New York that had 40 thousand Boricuas in 1946 and 58,500 by 1952. We also settled in Chicago and Milwaukee, Lorraine and Dover, Hartford and Bridgeport, mostly in the poorest communities.
2006 marks the intensification of a new migratory wave that threatens to become a great exodus. The end of tax exceptions led industries to resettle, economic growth turned negative, unemployment was on the rise contributing to migration. Among the reasons health professionals give for leaving are: non gratifying salaries, uncertainty regarding the future, poor infrastructure lacking quality equipment and materials, working hours, lack of opportunity for professional development, unfavorable personnel statutes, lack of upward mobility, better schooling opportunities, career opportunities, personal and family insecurity, high cost of living (medical insurance, utilities, transportation, rent), speak the language.
How serious the implications of the phenomenon for government and the economy in loss of revenue? Sergio Marxuach, director of the Center for a New Economy. sadly states: “The reduction of the population is a sign of a sick society where people do not have enough faith in the future to increase the size of the family or commit lo live for a long time.”
Actions proposed as of recent to deal with the debt do not contribute to the image of a nation that dwells in justice and equality. Massive dismissals of employees, increase in the cost of electricity, water, gasoline, increased taxes on property, sales and small owners, reduced pensions and health benefits, and closing schools is a direct and abusive punishment to the working class. So who would like to live in a country where politicians get in debt and expect the working class to pay?
I try to understand why people leave, my two children live in US. The prevailing feeling is of lack of opportunities, and a future that does not look promising. We do not have control over our borders regarding customs and naturalization. I would not want to think what the Island would be if we had them, but I am certain it would be different. What we can do is stop and think how does all this strike me, what light does it shed on my image and identity? Better yet, how can I contribute to a nation where people want to live?
Copyright 2015 by José M. Umpierre. Trabajo Para Ustd used under the Fair Use proviso of the copyright law. All other photos are in the pubic domain. Note: I spent most of my occupational life in the School of Public Health, where I had the privilege of sharing with Dr. José L. Vázquez Calzada, professor of Demography that contributed many of the data referenced. I share the same debt with Dra. Rosa Pérez Perdomo, for her fraternal support.