By Haya El Nasser, USA TODAY
MAYAGÜEZ, Puerto Rico— Here, about 100 miles from the tourist-filled beaches, cobblestone streets and historic forts of Old San Juan and the imposing cruise ships docked near the walled city, the main attraction has little to do with tourism. The real draw is the University of Puerto Rico's swelling ranks of engineering, science and nursing graduates looking for work.
Recruiters for companies such as Boeing and Disney,NASA and other U.S. government agencies, school districts and hospitals from Texas to Florida flock to career fairs in this industrial city on the island's western shore.
They're aggressively courting the most coveted slice of the U.S. workforce: college grads trained in all the hot-button STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) disciplines. Add that these students are bilingual, don't need a passport, visa or any government permission to work stateside, and it's clear why they're a hot commodity, even in a down economy.
Puerto Rico has seen a historic population decline in the past few years, and this "brain drain" is a mere symptom of a larger problem rooted in an enduring recession where unemployment is still above 14%, compared with 8.3% nationally.
To the chagrin of many Puerto Ricans, luring the best and brightest off the island has become a breeze.
Consider this just the latest chapter in Puerto Rico's story, one shaped by its complex relationship with theUnited States. It's a commonwealth — not a state — yet its residents are U.S. citizens who can vote in U.S. elections when they're living in any of the 50 states or the District of Columbia.
How bad is the exodus? So many residents are leaving the island that more Puerto Ricans now live on the mainland than in Puerto Rico. The commonwealth's population had a steeper loss than any of the 50 states since 2006, according to the Census Bureau. In the year ended July 1, 2011, the island lost about 15,000 residents, a 0.4% slide, to a current population of 3.7 million. That's a bigger drop than Rhode Island and Michigan, the only states to see a decline.
Increasingly, the exodus is led by educated professionals — young and middle-aged.
Young people and families are leaving primarily for jobs, but also to get away from a spike in crime (more than 1,000 murders last year, a record high that topped 983 the previous year) and an increasingly active drug trade coupled with widespread police corruption.
A poll by global market research company Ipsos last October found that 1.5 million people, or 45% of islanders, have considered leaving — most for U.S. states. About a quarter of those Puerto Ricans have taken steps to do so, the poll found.
"Professionals are being forced to leave," says Daphne Santa, a speech and language pathologist at the Orlando VA Medical Center and chairwoman of thePuerto Rican Professionals Association based in South Florida. "It's not that they want to."
"It's a substantial concern," acknowledges Secretary of Commerce José Pérez-Riera. "We don't want to see the population leave."
"It's a brain drain," Santa says. "I'm afraid the island will continue to deteriorate because all the thinkers, the intellectuals, are forced to leave."
At the same time, the number of births has slid from 60,000 in 2000 to 42,000 a year today.
"It's basically the bad economy," says Harold Toro-Tulla, research director at the Center for the New Economy, a San Juan-based think tank. "When people face a tough time, they decide to postpone marriage."
The island suffered some of the same speculative housing fever that gripped much of the USA. Housing values have dropped about 25% since 2007. A luxury high-rise condominium towers over De Diego Avenue in San Juan, offering health club amenities and superb ocean views. But most of its units sit empty.
Educated and mobile
More than 20% of Hispanics in Puerto Rico have a bachelor's degree, a higher educational attainment than people of Puerto Rican origin living in the 50 states and the District of Columbia (16%), according to the Pew Hispanic Center.
"When you go to a job fair (in Puerto Rico), there are thousands of candidates," says Nestor Ramirez, director for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office's technology center group in Alexandria, Va., and a Puerto Rican who returns to the island at least once a year. He recruits about 30 people a year on average in an effort to boost the number of Hispanics in the federal workforce.
"I met a lot of students who work for cellphone or video stores, and they've graduated," Ramirez says.
Puerto Ricans have come stateside, returned home, come back and returned again for decades. In 1950, about 250,000 Puerto Rican natives lived stateside. Today: About 1.5 million, or a third of the 4.6 million Puerto Ricans living stateside, were born on the island. They are the second-largest Hispanic group in the USA (after those of Mexican descent).
Although New York and nearby northeastern states were the prime destinations for much of the 20th century, more Puerto Ricans are now drawn to central Florida, a destination much closer in miles and temperatures. Only a third of recent Puerto Rican migrants went to New York.
Florida is gaining a net 7,300 Puerto Ricans a year, far more than any other state. Texas, North Carolina and Georgia — all states that were not prime destinations in previous decades — have started to attract more Puerto Ricans. A temperate climate and a strong economy, especially in Texas, are the main draws.
The island's complicated relationship with the United States goes back to the Spanish-American War in 1898. Puerto Rico ("rich port" in Spanish) is a former Spanish colony that became a U.S. territory after that war. Puerto Ricans were given U.S. citizenship in 1917. In 1952, Congress granted the island the right to draft a local constitution, making it a commonwealth.
People born in Puerto Rico who live on the island can't vote for president and have a non-voting member in Congress.
The island's unusual status creates something of a schizophrenic relationship with its U.S. neighbors. Yes, they're all Americans and the U.S. flag flies over the island, but moving from Puerto Rico to the mainland requires a much greater cultural, linguistic (Spanish and English are official languages, but Spanish dominates) and social leap than moving from Idaho to Utah or Michigan to California.
"They're here for awhile, and they want to go back," says Victor Vazquez Hernandez, chairman of the social sciences department at Miami Dade College and former head of the National Congress for Puerto Rican Rights.
This fluidity is why the island's political parties are defined by the relationship they want with the USA. Among the main parties, one wants Puerto Rico to remain a commonwealth, the other — currently in power — wants it to become the 51st U.S. state. A minority party advocates outright independence.
Elections this November will have a two-part referendum on the ballot. The first will ask voters if they want a change. The second will ask voters to choose between statehood, independence or the current commonwealth status. Any change, however, would have to be approved by the U.S. Congress and the president.
"Statehood preference has increased slightly, but it's never seriously addressed," Vazquez Hernandez says.
Trying to heal the economy
For many Americans, Puerto Rico is a port of call along their Caribbean cruises, perhaps their only dalliance with the island. But tourism accounts for only 7% of the commonwealth's economic output. Manufacturing, in fact, is the dominant driver, though it also has taken a beating during this recession.
Less than nine months before the election, the administration of Gov. Luis Fortuño is desperately trying to lift the economy.
Puerto Rico as a film location is taking off (the Pirates of the Caribbean movies were filmed here) and a slew of new incentives — most designed to keep people on the island and get others to return — were recently adopted.
The vision: become an international service center for legal, financial, insurance and real estate services by levying a low 4% tax on income generated from exported services and a 90% exemption on the payment of property taxes on call centers, warehouses and corporate headquarters.
Here in Mayagüez, the government's industrial development arm is using the 50-building Guanajibo Research and Innovation Park near the University of Puerto Rico's local campus as a life sciences incubator.
There's Cutting Edge Superconductors Inc., which has developed new MRI technology. Another, LabChemS Corp., provides consulting services to the medical device industry, creating enough jobs to keep chemical engineers such as Laura Andujar, 28, here.
"Most of my friends are living in the states now," Andujar says. "I know it's hard (here), but there are opportunities."
Edisa Albino, 30, got her advanced degree at the University of Maryland but came back and worked three years as a medical technician. She was thinking of returning to the USA when one of the new companies offered her a job. She is now research and development lab director for CDI Laboratories, one of the start-ups at Guanajibo that's developing antibodies to viruses in a partnership with Johns Hopkins University.
'I couldn't find anything'
But this trickle of jobs simply isn't enough to stem the exodus.
San Juan native Gustavo Rosario, 28, graduated in electrical engineering in 2007. He was unemployed for a year and later was employed as a warehouse manager, taught at a community college and worked in the building permits department.
"I couldn't find anything in my field," he says.
In late 2010, the U.S. Patent office recruited him as an examiner, and he moved to Alexandria, Va. His wife, Jennifer Castro, finished her dental residency in Puerto Rico and joined him.
"I'm leaving everything I know — my family and friends," Rosario says.
Fernando Colón, 29, sees every professional who leaves the island as an opportunity for himself. He estimates that more than half of his graduating class went to college in U.S. states, and fewer than 10% came back. Even his parents moved to Florida for a while, came back and now are thinking of returning.
Colón wants to stay. His Per Capita Consulting firm, run with three partners, helps local municipalities take advantage of federal grants for business development. He sees a future in solar energy.
"I have thought about it," Colón says about leaving. "But there are great opportunities here."
Contributing: Paul Overberg in McLean, Va.