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Relocation of Workers from Puerto Rico to the States

There are currently far more people born in Puerto Rico or of Puerto Rican heritage living in the 50 States than in Puerto Rico – 5.4 million to 3.4 million. From the 13,000 living in Alabama to the more than one million in New York and on to Wyoming’s over 51,000, all States have citizens of Puerto Rican origin.

There is a long history of U.S. citizens from Puerto Rico coming to the States for the greater opportunity that a State provides than the territory does. Recently, headlines have pointed to the number of qualified health care workers and teachers relocating from the islands to the States. A century ago, a Federal program offered jobs to farmers displaced by large sugar plantations. This may have been the first large-scale migration from Puerto Rico to the States.

In 1917, Puerto Ricans were granted U.S. citizenship. In 1918, the U.S. Employment Service Bulletin announced that 75,000 unemployed Puerto Ricans were available for war work in the States. Many were brought to labor camps. It seemed to the Federal government to be a good solution for unemployment in Puerto Rico and for lack of workers in some States.

In fact, however, it didn’t work out that well.

In North Carolina, for example, according to a statement in the Record of the Bureau of Insular Affairs (“Rafael Marchan Statement,” October 24, 1918,  Record Group 350, File 1493), the workers were forced to work under dangerous and unsanitary conditions, were not fed properly or given medical care, were beaten, and were kept against their will when they tried to leave the camp.

Another 1,436 of the workers were sent to work in an Arkansas factory making picric acid, used in explosives. The factory had not been able to find enough people locally to do the work. They had brought people in from Texas and Oklahoma, but still needed more hands. The Puerto Rican workers arrived just before a flu epidemic, and Department of Labor records also report that they were homesick, though they were “considerately treated.”  Whether homesickness made them more susceptible to influenza or not, 176 men died within a year in Picron, Arkansas.

This unfortunate story of workers coming to the United States from Puerto Rico did not discourage later migrants. By 1950, a quarter of a million Puerto Ricans were living in the States. During the 1950s, relocation from Puerto Rico to the States increased, followed by a drop in movement from Puerto Rico as conditions in the territory improved.

In the 21st century, migration from Puerto Rico to the States picked up, and Puerto Rico faced the greatest population loss of any U.S. State or territory. Coming to the States was a win-win for many people. The conditions for Puerto Ricans in the 50 States had improved, while the conditions in Puerto Rico had not kept up.

Though everyone born in Puerto Rico is a citizen of the U.S. by birth, residents of Puerto Rico cannot vote for president and they do not have voting representation in Congress. Puerto Rico also faces severe economic difficulties, which are clearly part of the reason that so many people are leaving.

Again, relocation to the States seems like a good solution to the unemployment problems in Puerto Rico. People are moving under their own steam, choosing their own destinations, and succeeding in the States. Unfortunately, the dwindling population is harmful to the islands’ economy.

When Puerto Rico becomes a State,  movement from the mainland back to Puerto Rico can be expected. The recent mass migration to the 50 States clearly shows that Puerto Ricans are drawn to the benefits of statehood – whether it be for economic opportunity or equal rights.  And for now, to gain these benefits, the U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico must leave their homes.

Having voted for statehood in both the 2012 and 2016 plebiscites, Puerto Rico will still have to persuade Congress to take action before Puerto Ricans can have the benefits and responsibilities of statehood in Puerto Rico.

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