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As the presidential election gets closer, we'll be talking a lot more about voting blocs - Africa-Americans, Cuban-Americans. So what about Puerto Ricans? Three and a half million people live in Puerto Rico, but many more Puerto Ricans - over 5 million - live on the U.S. mainland. Over the last decade, crime and a faltering economy have prompted tens of thousands of people to leave for Florida and New York, Pennsylvania, Texas and elsewhere. NPR's Greg Allen tells us Puerto Ricans from across the country gathered in Orlando this past week to start organizing the diaspora into a political force.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing in Spanish).
GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Florida - specifically, Orlando - has become the new epicenter of Puerto Rican migration. A million Puerto Ricans live in Florida now - about the same number as New York. More arrive daily, driven largely by the island's economic crisis.
BETSY FRANCESCHINI: (Speaking in Spanish).
ALLEN: At a community center in Orlando, Betsy Franceschini, a representative of the island's government, welcomed Puerto Rican groups and their leaders to a conference to forge a national political agenda. After Mexicans, Puerto Ricans are the second largest Hispanic group in the 50 states. As U.S. citizens, Puerto Ricans who move to the mainland arrive here qualified to vote. Franceschini says it's time Puerto Ricans send a clear message their representatives in Congress and the White House.
FRANCESCHINI: If you want our vote, you must listen to us. (Speaking Spanish).
ALLEN: "United for Puerto Rico," Franceschini said, "we will overcome." Puerto Rico definitely could use some help. The island's government has been struggling to make payments on more than $72 billion in debt. Puerto Rico's economy has been in recession for most of the past decade. Unemployment is more than twice the national average. Jose Lopez of Chicago's Puerto Rican Cultural Center says people are moving to the mainland at a rate not seen since the '50s and '60s, when 2 million people left the island.
JOSE LOPEZ: We're actually experiencing even that at a higher scale today. So without a doubt, I believe that for Puerto Ricans, this hits at the core of their inner soul.
ALLEN: Lopez helped organize the conference and planned it in Florida in large part because of the importance of the Puerto Rican vote here. There are nearly as many Puerto Ricans in Florida now as Cubans. In the last election, aided by a strong Puerto Rican turnout, President Obama won the Hispanic vote and carried the state. Democrat Congressman Luis Gutierrez has been working with other members to gain support in Congress for measures to help the island, such as allowing the government there to restructure some of its debt through court-supervised bankruptcy.
Puerto Rico is also facing a health care crisis and a shortfall in federal reimbursements for Medicare and Medicaid. Gutierrez called on President Obama to make good on a promise he says the president made when the Affordable Care Act was passed to provide more funds for Puerto Rican health care when it was needed.
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LUIS GUTIERREZ: Mr. President, it is the time to provide the additional funds to the people of Puerto Rico.
ALLEN: Puerto Rico is facing big cuts in federal Medicare payments, while the States are seeing increases. Gutierrez says that makes no sense.
GUTIERREZ: You cannot continue to cut health care in Puerto Rico 'cause what you're saying to them is jump on the next airplane and come to Florida or come to Chicago or come to New York, where you will be treated with equality.
ALLEN: Gutierrez and others who represent the interests of Puerto Ricans in Congress were also pressuring the Treasury Department to help the island renegotiate its crushing $72 billion in debt. That effort may be bearing fruit. There were reports this week that the Treasury Department is considering setting up and overseeing a debt exchange program for Puerto Rico. Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.
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