MIAMI – Mayra Rios didn't want to leave her native Puerto Rico. But the constant bullying that her autistic son faced at school and the lack of services available to him were the last blow.
"Over there it's almost impossible to live," she said in Spanish at her modest two-bedroom Orlando apartment. "There's a blow from every side," she said complaining of the 11.5 percent sales tax rate officials recently imposed to alleviate some of the $70 billion debt burden.
As Puerto Rico struggles with an unpayable debt, an unemployment rate over 12 percent, rising violence and a stagnant economy that offers little opportunity to thrive, thousands of its residents are abandoning the island for central Florida, a longtime refuge for Puerto Ricans where low-skill jobs in tourism and related service industries were easy to find.
But times have changed and Puerto Rican community leaders say newcomers like Rios often find settling here difficult.
"It's a challenge because one has to adapt to everything, to laws, to the way of life, to the language," said Rios, who said she doesn't speak English well enough to land a well-paying job.
Puerto Ricans, who are U.S. citizens, have historically migrated to the mainland during harsh economic times. But as opposed to those who moved to the Northeast during the "Great Migration" of the 1950s, more Puerto Ricans today and in recent decades are choosing central Florida, according to the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at City University of New York.
Edwin Melendez, the center's director, said Puerto Rico's economic crisis is causing "another Great Migration," with Florida attracting the majority of immigrants because of its warm weather, proximity to Puerto Rico, job market and the already large Puerto Rican community.
With the most recent data from 2013, the center estimates almost 1 million Puerto Ricans live in Florida, with about 400,000 living in central Florida. The center also estimates Florida will soon rival New York as the state with the most Puerto Ricans. As of 2013, about 5 million Puerto Ricans live stateside, almost 2 million more than the 3.4 million Puerto Ricans living on the island.
But as community leaders in central Florida see their numbers soar, reports of recent arrivals struggling to find affordable housing, becoming homeless or living in hotels have them worried.
"Our county is not prepared to have a massive migration of people that are going to be needing affordable housing," said Nancy Sharifi, spokeswoman for the Orange County Department of Housing and Community Development.
Sharifi said most families that are moving are not affluent and many are not fully bilingual, which makes it difficult to work better paying jobs. She said a family needs an income of $40,000 or more to afford modest housing.
"Be prepared to work two-and-a-half jobs to be able to afford a two-bedroom apartment," she said. "You need to know the facts before you unload your suitcases and end up in your friend's or cousin's house."
Rios and her two teenage boys moved to Orlando in February to join her husband, who had arrived a few months earlier. He worked as an air conditioning technician in Puerto Rico, but because he doesn't speak English he is now a landscaper. He works full-time and weekends and makes $1,600 a month. The family survives on his income and some money that Mayra's ex-husband sends her children. After briefly working a cleaning job, without a car to herself, she is now unemployed.
Rios' family pays $1,200 for their modest two-bedroom apartment.
"I'm depressed," said Rios. "I'm alone, you get here and you're all alone."
But she said she will endure whatever hardships are necessary, for the sake of her two boys.
"They love it here," she said. "I did it for them."
Sharifi said there are success stories of people moving from Puerto Rico, but said those who struggle do so because they were uninformed about the costs and realities of central Florida. Community leaders have responded by offering "Talleres de Bienvenida," or "Welcomingmari Workshops," aimed at helping Hispanic immigrants cope with housing, employment and cultural issues.