Puerto Ricans leaving island for U.S. in record numbers

Puerto Rico is deep in debt
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Story highlights

  • Puerto Rico lost almost 2% of its population in 2014, report finds
  • On average, 230 people left per day
  • Economics are the main factor, a demographer says

(CNN)Puerto Ricans are leaving the island for the mainland United States at a historic rate.

The commonwealth's Institute of Statistics revealed Sunday the results of its analysis on 2014 migration, which found that Puerto Rico lost almost 2% of its population that year.
    About 84,000 people moved from Puerto Rico to the United States in 2014, according to the report, while only 20,000 moved back to the island, resulting in a net migration of 1.8%.
    On average, 230 people left per day -- enough to fill two daily flights out of the island.
    The result is the highest net migration recorded in the past decade, the Institute said.

    It's the economy

    "The economic factor is the main factor pushing people towards leaving Puerto Rico," demographer Raul Figueroa, who works as an independent consultant, told CNN.
    Unemployment, the lack of opportunities, especially for the youth, and quality of life are major factors, he said.
    Puerto Rico, now 10 years into a recession, is deep in debt and often compared to Greece and Detroit.
    More Puerto Ricans now live in the mainland United States than on the island itself, which eases the transition of Puerto Ricans who move.
    In the 1950s, most Puerto Ricans moved to New York, Figueroa said, but "Florida has been the main destination in the last 10 years."
    Mario Marazzi-Santiago, the Institute's executive director, said negative migration has been a reality for a while.
    "(This report) confirms what we had already been observing and anticipating in the past few months," he said in a statement.
    The Institute's report gathers data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics.
    Under its status as a commonwealth, Puerto Rico is subject to U.S. federal laws, though island residents are exempt from some federal taxes. Puerto Rico has a nonvoting representative in Congress.

    'The longer I'm here, the harder it is to leave'

    Cassandra Jimenez, 24, left Puerto Rico in 2014 and moved to Marietta, Georgia, to pursue a chiropractic degree.
    "In Puerto Rico, no university offers this program. I had to come to the States to be able to pursue this career," she told CNN.
    With two more years to go, she said she doesn't see herself necessarily moving back to the island.
    "I'm not 100% sure yet, but I find the quality of life here better, so I'm more likely to stay than go back," she said.
    Her boyfriend, also Puerto Rican, moved to Georgia straight out of college in 2013 for a job as an electrical engineer.
    "Even before graduating, I already had a job here," said Luis Miguel Soto, 26.
    Soto recalled that many of his classmates at the University of Puerto Rico in Mayaguez spent a lot of time looking for jobs as engineers.
    "When construction stops, engineering jobs stop," he said.
    Will he move back to Puerto Rico?
    "The longer I'm here, the harder it is to leave," he said, making reference to growing wages. "And the more I'd have to leave behind."

    Half million people left in 1950s

    For the past six decades, Puerto Rico has looked at the 1950s as a point of reference for mass exodus. Back then, close to half a million inhabitants left for the mainland.
    But most recent data suggests that Puerto Rico may be experiencing an even greater wave of migration, the Institute of Statistics said.
    Between 2010 and 2014 more people moved from the island to the United States than in the first half of the 1950s, when the net migration was estimated at 237,000, according to the organization.
    In the first half of the current decade, 263,000 people flew to the United States and didn't return.
    These numbers, said Marazzi-Santiago, point to what may be known by the end of the decade as "the greatest exodus in Puerto Rico's history."

    Settling in San Antonio

    Silvia Nunez moved from Puerto Rico to New York in 2015 because of lack of jobs. The cost of living took her by surprise.
    "I had a plan, but it didn't work out," she said.
    After trying New Jersey, she ended up moving to San Antonio, Texas, where she finds life less expensive than in Puerto Rico.
    "The wages are higher. Most of the time, you start working at a rate of $9.25 an hour," Nunez said.
    She also feels safer, and is paying less than half what she used to pay for utilities in Puerto Rico.
    Nunez described San Antonio as a great city for those who are not fluent in English.
    "You'll need to speak English if you want to find a better job, but you can still get one without speaking the language."
    The only downside to her experience, she said, is that health care is more expensive.

    Teachers add to 'brain drain'

    While students make up two-thirds of Puerto Rico's total population decline, between 1,000 and 4,000 teachers also left in 2014.
    A similar number of retailers moved to the States the same year, the Institute of Statistics said.
    More people with a degree greater than a high school diploma flew out of Puerto Rico in 2014. Those who moved back couldn't make up the difference, so 17,000 "brains" were lost.
    And for the fourth year in a row, there was an increase in the number of professionals who left the island -- about 12,000 people including managers, salespeople, health care workers and educators, the Institute said.
    "In the following years, when the history about the current migratory wave is written, it will be described as the Second Great Migration, or the Second Great Exodus of Puerto Rico," Marazzi-Santiago said.
    The Institute of Statistics' full report is available here.