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Florida groups unite, ramp up focus on Puerto Ricans, a pivotal voting block

Over 56,000 Puerto Ricans have resettled in central Florida alone since Hurricane Maria, and the numbers continue to grow.
Image: The Wider Image: Displaced Puerto Ricans seek refuge in Florida
Puerto Ricans Liz Vazquez, left, Anaitza Soler, second left, and Cyd Marie Pagan, second right, fill out documentation to receive aid from an NGO Salvation Army at a hotel in Orlando, Florida on Dec. 7, 2017.Alvin Baez / Reuters

MIAMI, Fla. — In December, Sheraly González, 29, arrived in Orlando from Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria left her 8-year-old son, who has ADHD, without therapy for months.

“He was regressing in Puerto Rico,” she said.

Rebuilding their lives in Florida made González nervous, anxious, and even depressed. But life has begun to normalize. Her husband found a job in Disney World and their two children have enrolled in schools.

The family is still living in a hotel room provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). They have not been able to muster up enough money to cover the security deposit as well as first and last month rents required for most apartments.

It’s the reality shared by the exodus of thousands of Puerto Ricans from the island that is transforming communities and politics across Florida. Over 135,000 Puerto Ricans have permanently relocated stateside during the six months after Hurricane Maria ravaged the island, according to estimates by the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College in New York.

The largest share, over 56,000, have settled in Florida, particularly in the Orlando area. State agencies as well as non-profit groups have helped them settle in.

Now, a new coalition called Abrazo Boricua or “Puerto Rican Hug,” launched in Orlando on Thursday. It brings together over ten non-profits that include community service organizations, faith-based groups and legal and civil rights organizations to assist displaced Puerto Ricans.

Through the Abrazo Boricua website, Puerto Ricans will be able to access in one place information on English classes, housing, workforce preparation, legal assistance and medical and health contacts.

“It brings together all these resources, expertise and services and is sort of a referral source,” said Betsy Franceschini, senior state director for programs and policy for the Hispanic Federation in Florida, one of the groups spearheading the coalition.

The coalition is also educating the newcomers on civic engagement and voter registration at a key moment, just six months before the November midterm elections.

“We are working on a strategic plan to have a higher impact in the community," said Franceschini.

In Florida, Puerto Ricans who have moved to the state represent an attractive group of voters to both Republicans and Democrats because of their high participation rates in elections and their ability to group together as a voting bloc. Some analysts say the new wave of migrants are swing voters.

The stampede of Puerto Ricans to Florida, after Hurricane Maria left the island in dire condition, are joining over one million who already live in the state. Many of them have come in recent years fleeing the economic crisis on the island. At the rapid pace they are growing, they will soon displace Cubans as the largest Latino group in Florida.

Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens and can vote in U.S. elections as soon as they move and register to vote. But for the newly arrived, the primary concerns are finding jobs, housing and schools for their children.

“What we have seen is that people will not arrive and register to vote. That is the last thing on their mind,” said Franceschini.

Registering them to vote and doing anything to woo potential voters is critical for both parties leading up to the November elections.

Though some of the organizations in Abrazo Boricua support progressive causes that are part of the Democratic Party platform, as non-profits they cannot make appeals to vote for particular candidates or to support a specific political party. Registering to vote and teaching about civic engagement is a key component of what they do.

Since political parties and politics are different on the island, newly arrived Puerto Ricans are not necessarily familiar with the specific platforms stateside. Puerto Ricans can vote in presidential primaries on the island, but cannot cast a ballot for president. They elect officials every four years, so midterm elections are foreign to them, which is where organizations like Abrazo Boricua step in.

And they are not alone. The Libre Institute, part of the center-right Libre Initiative, launched outreach programs in Orlando in January. The group has been providing English-language classes and civic classes to Puerto Ricans in Central Florida through their “Welcome to Florida” classes.

In November, Floridians will be deciding on a number of races. Republican Gov. Rick Scott and incumbent Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson are battling for what could become one of the most expensive Senate races ever. There is also an open gubernatorial race and a handful of congressional races that could tilt the balance of power in the U.S. House of Representatives.

President Donald Trump won the state of Florida by a mere 112,000 votes. In the midterm elections, just a few hundred voters could change the dynamics in down ballot races.

For Franceschini, it’s not just about educating the newly arrived. “We will make sure that elected officials understand the importance of the Puerto Rican vote,” she said. “We have the power here to elect candidates that will help the island.”