National Public Radio has featured two stories on the migration of Puerto Ricans to the mainland recently: “Don’t Give Up on Us: Puerto Ricans Wrestle with High Crime” details the crime rate in Puerto Rico, which is higher than any state of the Union; “One Way Ticket to Florida: Puerto Ricans Escape Island Woes” shares the stories of Floridians who came to the state from Puerto Rico in the face of economic troubles.
For Puerto Ricans, who are U.S. citizens and can travel freely from Puerto Rico to the mainland and back, an escape to the mainland can seem like the best solution to economic or social problems. It may indeed be a solution for an individual, but the loss of population is not a solution for Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico has lost half a million residents in the past decade, leaving it with a net loss in population. (Michigan is the only state which has suffered such a loss in this century.)
The majority of those who leave Puerto Rico for the mainland are employed, often in professional positions. The crime rate is cited by many as the reason for leaving, but the unemployment rate is also the highest in the country. Puerto Rico has an educated population, with 20% of Puerto Ricans holding college degrees. Companies from the U. S. mainland, struggling to find qualified nurses and engineers in their home states, come to Puerto Rico to recruit new grads.
So Puerto Rico loses qualified workers and young professionals, and the economy suffers further.
For the mainland United States, Puerto Rico may be a good source of workers to close the skills gap, but is in the country’s best interests for Puerto Ricans to see escape from the island as the best solution to problems of violent crime, drug trafficking, and economic struggles?
The history of other territories that have become states makes it clear that becoming a state tends to improve a territory’s economic position. Equal federal support, full representation in government, and complete citizenship rights allow new states to use their resources to their fullest potential. Perhaps statehood would allow Puerto Rico to be a place other Americans will choose to move to, rather than a place to escape.