‘Mass Migration’ From Puerto Rico Brings Hundreds to Philadelphia

Raul Berrios and his nine-year-old son Asaf arrived in Philadelphia recently from their home in Puerto Rico.

It was not by choice. The two fled the island devastated by Hurricane Maria out of necessity. The elder Berrios, a teacher and musician, came to Philadelphia in hopes of getting medical help. He has prostate cancer.

The father and son are among more than 150 Puerto Ricans who came looking for advice and assistance this week at the Philadelphia Office of Emergency Management's Disaster Services Center on West Allegheny Avenue in North Philadelphia.

The center, which was open for five days this week, was set up to help smooth the transition for many from the U.S. territory looking for a fresh start in southeastern Pennsylvania. Some of the help included registering with FEMA, finding short-term housing and wellness treatment.

It remains unclear how many Puerto Ricans have already come to Philadelphia and the surrounding suburbs in what one Latino community leader called a "mass migration" from the American territory to the continental United States.

And the migration is expected to continue.

Erika Almiron, executive director of the city-based community organization, Juntos, said she's expecting the number of arriving Puerto Ricans to be "in the thousands."

Look at it since the hurricane: There were mass waiting lists for people trying to get off the island," she said, recalling the story of a friend from North Philadelphia who just recently returned to the city.

The friend was stuck on the island for three weeks waiting for a flight home, Almiron said.

Officials in Philadelphia and in agencies like FEMA are still grappling with how to assist the thousands of relocating Puerto Ricans. And some like Almiron also wonder what the mass migration will mean to the island's future.

"One of the things interesting in this moment as this mass migration happens is what happens to the island in the long term," Almiron said. "Will it go into deeper depths of poverty?"

For little Asaf, who played a steel drum outside the service center on West Allegheny Avenue Friday morning alongside his father, he loves Puerto Rico.

But it's time to look ahead in Philadelphia.

"It was pretty awesome," he said of his home island. "But this is a new life, a new life."

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