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Puerto Rico Exodus Bound To Shake Up Mainland Policy


Today, as we're trying to answer the question of what's next for Puerto Rico, we're also looking at what's next for Puerto Ricans. Now people have been leaving the island anyway in recent years because of all the economic turmoil. But according to the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College, some 135,000 people relocated to the mainland in the first six months after the hurricane, many to existing Puerto Rican communities in New York, Connecticut and Florida.

So now one question is whether one of the effects of this diaspora could be new political power on the island. Puerto Ricans' voting power is limited. They can vote in primaries but not for president in the general election. They have a resident commissioner with limited voting rights in Congress but not a representative. Now, with so many more Puerto Ricans living on the mainland, they're becoming the focus of political organizers in places like Florida who hope they could have an impact on the upcoming midterm elections and perhaps even beyond.

To talk more about this, we called Alfonso Aguilar. He is a Republican. He's one of Puerto Rico's five shadow delegates to Congress. He's also the president of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles and a former chief of the U.S. Office of Citizenship under President George W. Bush.

Welcome back. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

ALFONSO AGUILAR: Happy to be with you.

MARTIN: So last time we spoke, you had just become a shadow delegate, and the idea was to lobby Congress for statehood. Would it be fair to say that that effort was born out of frustration over the federal response to the hurricanes?

AGUILAR: Well, that was certainly one of the reasons. I think the Hurricane Maria showed - has helped highlight the lack of political power that the U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico have. Texas, Florida have access to federal programs that are key to recovery efforts after a natural disaster. Puerto Rico doesn't - you take, for example, food stamps. Texas, Florida have access to disaster SNAP assistance. Puerto Rico doesn't.

And as you know, after a natural disaster of the magnitude of Hurricane Maria, a lot of people were without jobs. They needed access to water, food, whatever. And we didn't have the same access that other states have. So I think it has highlighted the lack of political power and also that, legally, as a territory, we're different than states, so we're treated differently.

MARTIN: You've made it very clear that your cause is statehood - it was before the hurricane. But this is a contentious issue here in Puerto Rico. We are finding out just how contentious it is. And so much of the politics seems to revolve around this question. Do you think this will get more traction with so many more Puerto Ricans on the mainland?

AGUILAR: Certainly. It's a way to educate our fellow citizens about the unequal treatment of the U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico. As you were saying, hundreds of thousands have moved from the island to the mainland. There's an estimate out there that after the storm, Puerto Rico may lose up to 15 percent of its population. So we're talking around half a million people.

About 200,000, I think, have already moved to Florida. Remember, these are U.S. citizens, so once they arrive in Florida, they can register to vote. And I think they're going to play a decisive role in the election, particularly in Florida, where you have a race, for example - perhaps the top race in the country - which is the race for U.S. Senate between Democratic Senator Bill Nelson and Republican Governor Rick Scott.

And what's interesting about that race is that I think they recognized that those Puerto Rican voters - they looked at the polling - the majority of them support statehood and are more likely to vote for a candidate who openly supports statehood. So long and behold, what have both candidates done? They have endorsed statehood very publicly for Puerto Rico.

MARTIN: Well, you know, to that end, though, I mean - and in fact, the governor of Puerto Rico has been making the point - has made the point in press conferences and in meetings that if the U.S. doesn't invest in the long-term recovery of Puerto Rico, they will be faced with a large migration of people...

AGUILAR: That is correct.

MARTIN: ...And will have to deal with the political consequences of that. But doesn't the predicate of that sort of imply that these voters will have a consistent point of view, that there's a unifying perspective that would enable Puerto Ricans to function as a voting bloc?

What evidence do you have of that, given how contentious the politics on the island are?

AGUILAR: Well, I don't think the governor is saying that. I think that they can get involved politically and influence the election. If you look at Florida, Puerto Rican voters are actually swing voters.

In the last election for the Senate, 48 percent of Hispanics voted for Marco Rubio. Clearly, many Puerto Ricans voted for him. So what he's saying is, look, we can become a political force in the mainland. One thing that unites the vast majority of Puerto Ricans is statehood.

MARTIN: So how else do you think that Puerto Ricans might change the political landscape?

AGUILAR: Well, you know, as a Republican, I must say that the Republican Party has an opportunity in Florida. We've done polling that shows that the attitudes of Puerto Rican voters are very conservative. The majority of them support school choice. They're socially conservative, very supportive of the right to life. So the Republican Party could make inroads. Some Republican candidates in the past, like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio and even Rick Scott, have been very effective in making inroads into Puerto Rican community because of their stance on those issues.

MARTIN: Alfonso Aguilar is one of Puerto Rico's shadow delegates to Congress. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

AGUILAR: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.