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Census: U.S. Latino population grows while Puerto Rico sees unprecedented drop

A growing number of Latinos and the displacement of Puerto Ricans after Hurricane Maria are contributing to a diverse U.S., new census data shows.
Image: People wait in line to get a flight out of the Luis Munoz Marin International Airport
People wait in line to get a flight out of the Luis Munoz Marin International Airport as they try to return home or escape the conditions after Hurricane Maria on Sept. 26, 2017, in San Juan, Puerto Rico.Joe Raedle / Getty Images

While the Hispanic population in the United States grew by two percent (1,164,289) between 2017 and 2018, Puerto Rico lost almost 130,000 people in the same time period, according to new data released by the U.S. Census Bureau on Thursday.

Well over 40,000 people would leave the island annually over the last decade, but 2018 marked the first time that migration out of Puerto Rico reached a six-figure number.

“It is unclear if this is a new level of departure that will continue or if this is just because of the hurricanes … it’s too early to tell,” Mark Hugo López, director of global migration and demography research at the Pew Research Center, told NBC News.

The population decline in the U.S. territory skyrocketed after hurricanes Irma and Maria ravaged the island in 2017, killing about 3,000 and displacing thousands of people.

“For example, the governor of Florida had estimated that about 200,000 people went to Florida after the hurricanes,” López said. “It is very possible that the new number takes into account the people that might have returned.”

Almost 3.2 million people live in Puerto Rico as of July 2018, showing a population decline of 14.3 percent since 2010. The 2010 census had shown that a little over 3.7 million people lived in the U.S. territory at the time.

The new preliminary census numbers show that Puerto Rico has lost about 530,000 people in a span of eight years.

During that period of time, Puerto Rico had been trying to recover from the 2008 economic recession while surviving a deep financial crisis which was exacerbated by the devastating hurricanes.

Increasingly, more Puerto Ricans had started to leave in 2013 after austerity measures began to strain people as it became more evident that the island would not easily be able to pay off about $120 billion in debt and pension obligations.

As the Puerto Rican population shrank in the island, the Latino population in the United States grew by more than 1 million people between 2017 and 2018.

More Latinos live in the U.S., bureau says

The Census Bureau estimates that about 58 million Latinos live in the country, making up 18 percent of the nation’s population. By 2060, Latinos are expected to make up about 30 percent of the U.S. population, according to the agency.

Los Angeles County in California continues to have the largest Hispanic population in the country with a population of 4.9 million Latinos, the agency said in a press release.

While Liberty County in Texas experienced the nation’s fastest growth in Latino population, increasing by 11.4 percent (2,369 people) between 2017 and 2018, Maricopa County in Arizona saw the largest numeric growth.

“Maricopa shows a shift from the traditional growth that was focused in cities and metro areas in the South around the 90’s,” López said. “This could also be a reflection of births being more important than immigration as sources of population growth.”

The Hispanic population in Maricopa County, where the city of Phoenix is located, increased by a little more than 34,000 people (2.6 percent), according to the agency.

“Especially because of Phoenix, Arizona’s population as a whole has been increasing,” López said. “People could be moving there for a number of reasons whether it is because of jobs or people moving back home, but really the Hispanic growth there is also part of a broader growth.”

Maricopa County also had the largest numeric population growth among whites, increasing by 60,749 people (1.6 percent), as well as American Indian and Alaska Native people, which increased by 3,745 (2.4 percent).