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Puerto Rico's Debt Crisis: Changing The Face Of Connecticut

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David Medina/Special to
David-Medina-2As Ombudsman and Director of Family Services for Hartford Public Schools, Marta Bentham runs the district’s Welcome Center, a one-stop office that resolves any issues a family may have with the school system — everything from enrollment to providing needy students with warm coats in winter.
The job puts her in a position to know exactly how many students enter and exit the school system at any given time and why.
Ms. Bentham recently made a startling disclosure: Of the more than 1,200 students that enrolled in the district during the 2015-2016 school year, 825 of them were newly arrived migrants from Puerto Rico whose families moved to the city to escape a financial collapse that has left thousands without jobs, without hospitals and without schools to attend.
Ana Sousa-Martins, Director of the Bilingual Education and World Languages for Bridgeport Public Schools told a similar story.
She has had to add an additional class this year and two more classes in September to accommodate a sudden influx of Spanish-speaking students that have entered the school system during the same time period. Although the Bridgeport school system identifies the new students only as Latino, Ms. Sousa-Martins says that she spoke with many of the new parents and is convinced that most are recent arrivals from Puerto Rico.
In New Haven Public Schools, meanwhile, Parent Engagement Coordinator Daniel Diaz said new migrants from Puerto Rico, combined with the continuing influx of immigrants from other Spanish speaking countries, will push the district’s Latino student population past the 50 percent mark within two years. That’s quite a statement when you consider that it now stands at 43 percent with 9,383 students.
But Diaz, an economist, offered some statistical support for his prediction: The number of students in New Haven’s bilingual education program increased from 2,255 in 2013-2014 school year, when the financial crisis began to manifest itself, to 3,311 this year. That’s a jump of 1,056 students. The greatest increases, moreover, are occurring in the lower grades, as many of the new arrivals are young families with as many as three siblings each, and in schools located in traditionally non-Latino neighborhoods.
The Strong 21st Century Communications Magnet, a K-4 school, for example, has 129 bilingual education students out of a student population of 400 — nearly 33 percent. In 2013-2014, only 77 of those 400 students were in bilingual education.
Of 979 students at James Hillhouse High School on Sherman Parkway, 233 identified themselves as Latino this year and of those, 108 are in bilingual education. Two years ago, the school had only 84 Latino students, of which 43 were in bilingual education. And at the Nathan Hale K-8 school on Townsend Avenue, 219 of its 540 students now identify as Latino and 52 of them are in bilingual education, as opposed to 120 Latinos and 33 bilingual education students two years ago.
“The new migration is refilling the gaps left by the earlier generation of Puerto Ricans who left the city and moved to the suburbs,” Diaz said. “I have never spoken as much Spanish at my job as I do now.”
The observations from Hartford, Bridgeport and New Haven school officials offer a glimpse into how the crisis in Puerto Rico is changing Connecticut’s demographic profile. Most of the new arrivals are said to be living with relatives who already reside in the state until they can get on their feet.
“For whatever reason, the largest wave of these students started arriving right after Three Kings Day (Jan. 6, 2016),” Ms. Bentham said. “I can only imagine that they wanted to spend one last Christmas holiday at home.”
The experience was the same in for Ms. Sousa-Martins in Bridgeport.
“Many of them are just not bothering to wait until the end of the school year in Puerto Rico to transfer their children to schools in Connecticut,” Diaz said.
All three are bracing for a new, larger wave of Puerto Rican children to begin enrolling for the upcoming school year over the summer months.
The state’s Puerto Rican population has in fact been rising steadily since 2010, when the first signs that the island’s economy was tanking began to manifest themselves. The migration floodgates really burst open over the past year, however, as it became apparent that the government of Puerto Rico was going to default on the bonds it sold to pay for day-to-day services, such as medical care and health benefits, education, public safety, transportation and public works. Puerto Rico has already missed a $367 million payment on the bonds that was due May 1 and is expected to skip another $2 billion payment that’s coming up on July 1.
The most up-to-date population estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau and Connecticut’s Latino and Puerto Rican Affairs Commission only go up to the year 2014. But, they tell a very interesting tale. At year’s end, there were 301,182 Puerto Ricans living in Connecticut, an increase of 36,474 since 2010, many arriving in 2014. Puerto Ricans also increased their share of Connecticut’s overall Hispanic population from 55 percent to 56 percent during that time period and they now account for more than 8 percent of the state’s population, up from 7.5 percent in 2010.
“The debt crisis has touched everyone, including my own family,” said Yanil Teron, the executive director of the Center for Latino Progress in Hartford that provides education, training and leadership services to new arrivals, “My 14-year-old niece is coming up to live with us in August because her family feels she’ll get a better education in the public schools here than in Puerto Rico.”
The migration increase comes at a time when Connecticut is itself imposing massive layoffs and cuts in services that typically help new residents establish themselves. These include reductions in the income eligibility levels for Medicaid coverage, and cuts to education, municipal aid, hospitals, nursing homes and community-based social service programs.
Meanwhile, the exodus from Puerto Rico continues at an ever increasing rate, more so now that the U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources has advanced a bill that empowers a federal oversight board, appointed by the White House, to restructure the island’s $72 billion bond debt.
The board, which would not include any Puerto Rican government officials or residents of Puerto Rico, is expected to impose additional austerity measures that in all likelihood will accelerate the shrinking of the island’s population and further diminish the tax base needed to repay the debt. The board will have total control over Puerto Rico’s budget and have the power to privatize government services, fire more employees — further increasing its 12.5 percent unemployment rate — and raid pension funds. It will even have the power to prosecute and jail anyone in Puerto Rico who dares challenge its authority, functioning, in effect, as an unelected shadow government answerable to no one.
As a final incentive to abandon Puerto Rico, the bill would reduce the minimum wage for persons under 25 from $7.25 an hour to $4.25 an hour and scale back the federal nutritional assistance program on the island. These two provisions are particularly significant because 54 percent of all households in Puerto Rico survive on less than $25,000 a year.
A Pew Research Center analysis of the most current census data estimates Puerto Rico’s current population at 3.47 million, a drop of nearly 7 percent since 2010, which is considerably large when compared to a 2 percent decline from 2000 to 2010. In 2014-2015 alone, 61,000 residents left the island and the estimate for calendar year 2015 is 84,000. Needless to say, an overwhelming number of the island-born Puerto Ricans moving to the mainland (70 percent) say they are doing so to find better employment and rejoin families who long ago settled in the United States.
For Connecticut, the fun is just beginning.

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