Preparing for the Flood – Puerto Rico and Internal Displacement in the United States


By William Brown

In the wake of two devastating hurricanes, the United States finds itself facing a true humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico. According to StatusPR, electricity access is currently just over 20%. Only 50% of cell towers have been repaired, and just over half of all hospitals are operating with electricity. Although FEMA and other US-based agencies have been able to access the island, relief is being granted quite lackadaisically, exacerbating an already grim situation.

Before hurricanes Irma and Maria hit, high debt had led much of the younger population to abandon the island, which has largely restricted its reparative capacity. In 2014, Pew reported that the territory’s net migration rate was -64,073, representing a 9% decline in the population between 2000-2015. Tyler Cowen in Bloomberg highlighted that out of all states, Puerto Rico has the greatest population over 60, much of which is due to its high cost of living and low education availability, which drives migration of students. With such demography, it seems unlikely that the island’s recovery will be swift, and pre-storm economic realignment prospects have rapidly diminished. This has led many to consider whether or not they should leave the island.

As many headlines have touted, the transfer of Puerto Ricans from the territory to the mainland has already begun. Francisco Alvarado at Politico reported that between September 24-28, 3,000 Puerto Ricans had arrived at San Juan from Miami. This transplant was delayed after the September 20th hurricane Maria decimated the local airports. Lyman Stone, demographer and host of the oft-cited A State of Migration blog, used airlines balances to predict a lower net migration of 2,000-8,000 as a result of the hurricane. These numbers –although difficult to nail down – indicate a diminishing base population that could prove catastrophic. Henry Grabar of Slate wrote that a continual outflow of Puerto Ricans would nix the chance for the “long-term recovery plan,” aggravating the current devastation. José A. Cabranes and Félix López wrote in the Washington Post that: “If this migration occurs, it will be an additional, slow-motion disaster inflicted on an island that can ill afford to lose any more of its best and brightest.”

Because of current devastation and climatic trends, the current Puerto Rican exodus is likely to be only one case in many. A recent working paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) that analyzed disasters from 1920-2010 concluded that natural disasters in the United States increased county-based emigration when they are considered beyond the average. This out-migration reduced employment rates and increased poverty in the disaster-stricken areas, both in a similar magnitude of intensity. The coupling of the disasters and their financial burdens leads to true devastation at the site of the disaster. A second NBER study by Parag Mahajan and Dean Yang found that immigration to the United States greatly increases after storms, especially when the migrating population already has a robust population base.

What these studies point to is an often-ignored branch of both disaster and immigration policy in the United States. Although the US has a pointed – albeit shifting – policy towards immigration writ large, as well as a rather substantive policy towards disaster management, it lacks a distinct policy for dealing with internally displaced persons, or IDPs. This means that we as a country are presented with a large protection gap, a cohort of citizens who lack true assistance in times of turmoil.

IDPs are defined by the United Nations as those who are forced or obliged to leave their homes due to armed conflict, situations of generalized armed violence, human rights violation, or natural or manmade disasters. They differ from refugees in three main regards. First, they do not cross an international border, meaning they are not internationally displaced. These evacuees stay within their country of residence, meaning they are still owed the due diligence of their home governments. Second, they are not limited to those avoiding violence, oppression, and human rights violation. Migrants are only qualified as refugees when they flee their homes or place of residence in fear of persecution, a rather narrow definition, whereas IDPs can be induced to leave by disasters. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, is that these IDPs are not guaranteed the rights and protections prescribed to refugees. They do not enjoy resettlement programs, such as refugee cash assistance and medical assistance, and are instead left to repatriate themselves.

Although FEMA does employ the use of temporary housing, hotel reimbursements and even the occasional full-fledged reimbursement of destroyed homes, they do not guarantee the level of protection and provision to IDPs that other US organizations do to refugees. While refugees are guaranteed the rights given by the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its subsequent protocol, those displaced within our borders lack legal protection. Although a set of guiding principles for IDPs was released in the late 1990s, only the African Union has officiated any sort of ratification, meaning that other states lack implementation plans.

The Stafford Act offers guidelines on housing assistance, transportation assistance, and database creation in times of major disaster, but it did not conceive a policy towards IDPs. And this is where we as a country fall exponentially short. Although the US has ways of providing for people before and during disasters – including shelter creation and evacuation planning – it has no way of repatriating its displaced. Even though states use citizen participation in revamping communities after disasters (a prime example is the United New Orleans Plan), they do not have a true mechanism for providing for the displaced.

Certain entities have created programs to help with the arrival of our newfound neighbors. Many colleges and universities are offering in-state tuition for Puerto Ricans, some of which are waiving the cost altogether. The Chicago Housing Authority is working on transferring Section-8 subsidies from Puerto Rico, hoping to accommodate its anticipated growth.

However, these piecemeal provisions are not enough. In the face of the ever-present disaster, this needs rectification. Our most vulnerable ought to not be left behind in the wake of such insurmountable disasters. Our least vulnerable ought to not be complacent to the havoc wreaked on their peers. We need to advocate for policy that cares for us all, especially in times when we cannot care for ourselves.

William Brown is a first-year student in Carnegie Mellon’s Heinz College. He is pursuing a Master’s in Public Policy and Management and is interested in the intersection of technology, disaster displacement, and the environment.