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New York expects influx of Puerto Ricans due to storms

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, speaking at the Javits

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, speaking at the Javits Center in Manhattan on Sunday, Sept. 24, 2017, announces New York State's support for the Puerto Rico recovery effort. Credit: Jeff Bachner

New York officials are preparing for a rise in the number of Puerto Ricans relocating to the state, following back-to-back hurricanes that wiped out much of the U.S. territory’s infrastructure.

Officials including school superintendents on Long Island say it is too soon to pinpoint how many of Puerto Rico’s 3.4 million residents will relocate to New York.

But they say they expect a significant number to come here, given the state’s population of more than 1 million residents of Puerto Rican descent.

Edwin Melendez, an economist and director of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at CUNY-Hunter, said the island already was grappling with increasing numbers of people moving away for economic reasons. He said the storms are expected to accelerate that trend, and that 120,000 to 200,000 people could leave the island this year.

“The exodus of people leaving Puerto Rico is going to be significant,” Melendez said.

Before hurricanes Maria and Irma last month, about 60,000 Puerto Ricans a year were leaving the island due to rising unemployment rates brought on by a fiscal crisis caused by mounting government debt, Melendez said. A decade ago, about 12,000 people a year were leaving, he said.

“The needs of those people when they get here to New York are going to be significant. . . . We’ll be dealing with school transfers, we’ll be dealing with housing situations,” Melendez said. “We need to sort of transition from talking about triage and emergency . . . to planning for some of the long-term needs both here in New York and in Puerto Rico.”

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, speaking at a hurricane relief event in Manhattan last month, acknowledged the possibility of an influx of Puerto Ricans to New York if island residents “see despair setting in, or they think the relief efforts are either wanting or inadequate.”

“If that happens, we’ll handle it when it comes,” Cuomo said. On Friday the board of the State University of New York at Cuomo’s request said SUNY schools would offer in-state tuition rates to Puerto Rican and U.S. Virgin Island students impacted by Maria and Irma.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said public schools are ready to receive students relocating from Puerto Rico. De Blasio also has said city health and human services officials are assessing how the city can assist those who might be arriving with particular health care needs. The city has more than 700,000 residents of Puerto Rican descent, according to census figures.

“There’s no way yet to know what the number may be. But I think it’s absolutely right to assume that there will be a substantial number of Puerto Rican families coming here because they have family ties here and places hopefully they can stay,” de Blasio said at a news conference last week. “I would be surprised if that was less than the thousands.”

New York State Education Department spokesman Jonathan Burman said the department stands ready to help districts, facing a wave of new students, and is prepared to support students and their families in resuming the school year with as little interruption as possible.

Nassau and Suffolk counties have an estimated Puerto Rican community of about 100,000 people, according to latest U.S. Census Bureau surveys. Many are scattered beyond the Brentwood and Central Islip enclaves where large numbers of Puerto Ricans first arrived decades ago, so it’s not clear which school districts could see an impact, Puerto Rican community leaders said.

In Brentwood, with many Latino students, school district spokesman Felix Adeyeye said registration officials had not seen “any increase or any change in numbers at this moment.”

Howard M. Koenig, superintendent of Central Islip schools, said the district has not experienced an increase in students from Puerto Rico. He said the district is making preparations to accommodate students who arrive.

Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) said the prospect of migration from Puerto Rico is a growing concern.

After a small group of progressive activists picketed his Massapequa Park office last Wednesday, calling for more federal support to the island, King said the potential for people to leave the island underscores the need for substantial and sustained help from the federal government.

“In Puerto Rico, I understand, it’s just gone, the infrastructure is gone,” King said. “It’s in the interest of the United States, the 50 states, that this be corrected. And it’s also in the long-term interest of Puerto Rico. Basically, if improvements are not made, anyone who can get out is going to want to get out, so that would cause a brain drain in Puerto Rico and we’d have also large numbers of people coming to Florida and New York who would be in very bad economic straits.”

With John Hildebrand

State & Region