ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. - University of Central Florida sociology professor Dr. Fernando Rivera has already done studies on the power of the Puerto Rican vote along the all-important Interstate 4 corridor in Florida.
Now, he's working on a new study to see how many Puerto Ricans migrated after Hurricane Maria to call Florida their new home.
"Primarily, I'm looking at sort of the way Puerto Ricans were displaced by the storm, the experience with the hurricane and why they came to Central Florida," Rivera said. "The numbers, as you might know though, have come to be controversial as to how accurate they are or not."
Officials have given News 6 numbers ranging from 50,000 to 300,000.
Rep. Darren Soto, a Democrat who represents Florida's 9th District, says he is going based on a recent University of Florida study from the Bureau of Economic and Business Research, which estimated about 53,000 evacuees have permanently moved to Florida.
"I'm using numbers from UF, which they extrapolated from the number of students who enrolled in public schools," Soto said.
However, for Rivera's study, he says those school enrollment numbers could change too, especially now that's it's summer for students. He is hoping for more permanent data as time continues on as he says many people are planning on going back to Puerto Rico.
He also says he wants to wait a little bit longer in his research because he knows the impacts that number can have, both economically on the island and politically here in Florida.
"There are really consequences if the number is too high or the number is too low. It may impact the economic future of the island," Rivera said. "So if you are wrong by 100,000 people, that's going to impact the economic projections that you have to give to the financial crisis board."
He also says a number as high as 50,000 could change the political climate.
"If you had 20 people coming in, that's probably not a huge dilemma, but if you had 50,000 to 100,000 and 80,000 can register to vote, that can potentially change the political outcome on certain races," Rivera said.
It's exactly why ahead of mid-term elections in November, Democratic National Chairman Tom Perez made two stops in Orlando on Wednesday. In the morning, he held a round table with local organizations and officials helping Puerto Ricans and in the afternoon he met with Puerto Rican evacuees and students at UCF, all to rally up votes ahead of November.
He said that in 2016, 65 percent of Hispanics voted in the election, however in the mid-term elections in 2014, only 24 percent of Hispanics showed up to the polls.
"We need results, we want results here at home on the mainland," Perez said Wednesday. "Puerto Ricans are not second-class citizens, they never were and they never should be."
The RNC also sent a statement in response to Perez's stops in Orlando.
“While the RNC in conjunction with the Florida GOP has been working to ensure the Puerto Rican community in Florida has all the resources they need after Maria, Tom Perez is showing up right on time to support Bill Nelson and congressional Democrats with more empty rhetoric in a tough campaign year. We are here to continue to be supportive of the people of Puerto Rico. They deserve nothing less than that, and we’re going to continue to be focused on helping in every way we can.” said Taryn Fenske, RNC spokesperson.
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