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Puerto Rican wave hits Florida, carrying big political implications

By Alex Leary
People line up on Thursday, Sept. 28, 2017, to get on a Royal Caribbean cruise ship that is sailing to Fort Lauderdale with evacuees fleeing after Puerto Rico was hit by Hurricane Maria. [Photo by Joe Raedle | Getty Images]

Some 130,000 Puerto Ricans have arrived in Florida since Hurricane Maria, adding to an already steady wave and signaling a potential major development in I-4 corridor politics.

Experts at the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College in New York estimate that more than 300,000 Puerto Ricans could leave the island in the next two years, and Florida would likely attract many of those.

The political ramifications are big and at least on paper favors Democrats, as Puerto Ricans tend to vote for the party.

"Florida is a big swing state and Central Florida is the epicenter of that," Dennis Freytes, a political activist in the Orlando area, told the Tampa Bay Times in September, just after the storm. "This could be a very big deal. There are going to be voter registration drives and both parties are going to be after them. They already are."

More than 1 million Puerto Ricans already reside in Florida — some 1,000 families relocating each month — double the number in 2000 and now rivaling New York.

The growth, largely around Orlando but also in Tampa Bay, has outpaced the overall population increase in Florida as well as that of Hispanics overall.