Nearly half of Puerto Ricans surveyed in Florida said they are not returning to the island, while most listed not knowing English as their number one challenge in adjusting to life on the mainland, a new survey shows.
In one of the first surveys of this population after Hurricane Maria, conducted by Florida International University and commissioned by the Puerto Rican Alliance of Florida, 1,000 Puerto Ricans were asked about their lives in the state, including their reasons for leaving the island, level of education and current employment in Florida.
FIU professor Dr. Eduardo Gamarra, one of the lead authors of the study, said the language barrier topping the list of challenges was one of the study’s most surprising findings.
“I think for a lot of people, including myself, we think that English in Puerto Rico has been important enough so that when people migrate there’s not a problem with speaking English,” he said.
The study divided interviewees into four categories, based on the date of arrival in Florida: between 2017 and 2018; 2015 and 2016; 2012 and 2014; and before 2011. Participants were reached by phone in Orlando (61 percent), Tampa (22 percent), Miami (11 percent) and Fort Lauderdale (6 percent).
Nearly 18 percent said they did not speak English when they got to Florida, while 16.6 percent said they had trouble finding jobs, and 7.6 percent said they faced a higher cost of living.
The study also shows that among those who arrived after Hurricane Maria, between 2017 and 2018, Puerto Ricans who came to Florida were mostly highly educated: about 67 percent have university degrees and up to 7.4 percent had graduate degrees.
Asked if they would return to the island, 43 percent said no. Asked how long they planned to stay in Florida, nearly 56 percent chose “indefinitely.” Only 1.2 percent said they were staying for three to six months and nearly 2 percent said they are staying for six months to a year.
About 41 percent said they didn’t know how long they’d stay.
Among the reasons they cited for leaving the island, job opportunities topped the list (19.8 percent) followed by searching for a higher quality of life (19.2 percent), the precarious economic situation on the island (18.3 percent) and being closer to family residing in the states (11.8 percent). Over 75 percent said they had family in Florida before making the move, the data shows.
The new study, which has a margin of error of 3.1 percent, gives insight into a Florida community that is often hard to track and quantify, its authors said.
“We built the sample group,” Gamarra said. “It was really difficult to find Puerto Ricans. There’s no database that tells you where Puerto Ricans are.”
He also said the data contradicts public perception that Boricuas live off government benefits. Only 10 percent of those interviewed received any kind of aid from any agency in Florida, about 31 percent of it in the form of food stamps.
“The majority are not depending on social services,” he said. “The people who are living in hotels is not a huge group … in terms of the media, it’s an important group, but it’s not a big group.”
Though Gamarra — a political science professor — stressed the study’s objective was not to track voter intention among Puerto Ricans, asking about the state’s contentious Senate race between Gov. Rick Scott and U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson proved revealing.
“What surprised us was that Puerto Ricans recognized the governor’s name and they have a favorable opinion of the governor,” he said.
Although 57 percent said they are registered Democrats, 75 percent of Puerto Ricans said they have a favorable view of Scott, compared to 62 percent of those who viewed Nelson favorably. About 25 percent said they disapproved of Nelson and 18 percent they had an unfavorable view of the governor.
Only 7 percent didn’t know enough about Scott to have an opinion, compared to the 13 percent who had no opinion of Nelson. But Puerto Ricans who have arrived in recent years are more likely to register without a party affiliation, in line with nationwide trends, Gamarra said.
Geena Batista, the executive director of Puerto Rico Alliance of Florida, said the organization commissioned the study because volunteers realized they couldn’t provide relief work for Puerto Ricans in the state without knowing their needs.
“What I’m looking to get out of this is to be strategic,” she added. “Now we know that there’s objective data to show that there’s a need ... It’s about providing services, and that’s why we did it.”
Asked how long they planned to stay in Florida, nearly 56 percent chose “indefinitely.” Only 1.2 percent said they were staying for three to six months and nearly 2 percent said they are staying for six months to a year.