Facing a crisis of monumental proportions at home, tens of thousands of people are fleeing a Caribbean island in search of a better life in the United States only to find hardship and struggle on American shores. Their stories sound like those of millions of migrants – poverty at home, where the economy lies in tatters – but they differ from millions of others: they’re already American. Unable to pay its $73bn debt, Puerto Rico has begun rationing water, closing schools and watching its healthcare system collapse and 45% of its people living in poverty. Emigration to the mainland has accelerated in recent years, activists say, and data shows that from 2003 to 2013 there was a population swing of more than 1.5 million people.
“This new wave of immigration can be compared with the immigration in the 1930s and 40s,” said Edgardo González, coordinator of the Defenders of Puerto Rico, an activist group. The Great Depression and second world war spurred the so-called “Great Migration”, when tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans moved to New York every year for nearly two decades. Now most Puerto Ricans are arriving in central Florida, González said, but many cannot find jobs or even housing. “Some might stay with family for a few weeks, but for those who don’t have family, people end up homeless because of the lack of services,” he said.