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Marta Cerava
By Marta Cerava May 17, 2016

Treasury Secretary Lew says about 100,000 people left Puerto Rico last year

Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew is urging Congress to pass legislation to deal with Puerto Rico’s debt crisis, saying that without action the economy and welfare of the U.S. territory will continue to deteriorate.

During an interview on the Bloomberg network, Lew said that Puerto Rican hospitals are ill-equipped to deal with the spread of the Zika virus, that schools are closing and that the failing economy is driving people out.

"You have broad economic stress causing people to leave the island," Lew said May 3, 2016. "Almost 100,000 people left Puerto Rico last year."

For an island with a total population around 3.5 million, that’s a serious exodus. We decided to see if Lew was right.

Looking at the data

Census data shows a small, but steady increase in the number of people leaving Puerto Rico for the mainland. More than 360,000 people went from Puerto Rico to the United States btween 2010 and 2014.

However, the Census data isn’t out for 2015, which is the year Lew was talking about.

So where did Lew get that figure?

The estimate comes from the U.S. Department of Transportation, which tracks passengers departing from and arriving to the island. The Treasury Department has relied on this data before, according to department spokesperson Daniel Watson. 

The data show about 90,000 more people left Puerto Rico for the United States than came in.  

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*The American Community Survey showing total out-migration of Puerto Rico to the US mainland

**T-100 Domestic Market Data (US Carriers)     

None of this data includes people leaving Puerto Rico for somewhere other than the United States. Islanders mostly tend to head to the mainland, however, countries in Latin America, the Dominican Republic and Spain have been attracting Puerto Ricans as well. So the total number of migrants leaving the island is actually larger.

Recent qualitative interviews by researchers from the Center for Puerto Rican Studies found that the people leaving Puerto Rico in the greatest numbers are nurses, paramedics, police officers, teachers, college professors and lawyers. They are often recruited and going to states with growing Hispanic populations in need of bilingual professionals.

The surge in departures has led to the social media tag #yonomequito ("I am not going anywhere"). On Facebook this movement has been liked by 70,000 people.

Our ruling

Lew said that "almost 100,000 people left Puerto Rico last year."

That appears to be close. Airline data suggests about 89,000 more people departed Puerto Rico for the United States then entered it in 2015. While that’s not a perfect estimate to measure out-migration, all the population trends suggest Puerto Rico is experiencing a surge in out-migration, as residents leave for better jobs and prospects in the United States.

Lew’s statement is Mostly True.

Our Sources

Government Development of Puerto Rico, Puerto Rico: A Way Forward, June 29, 2015   

U.S. Census Bureau, State-to-State Migration Flows, accessed on May 16, 2016  

U.S. Department of Transportation, Bureau of Transportation statistics, Passengers, All carriers - All Airports, and email interviews with David Smallen and Connie Tang, Public Affairs Office, May 12, 2016

Pew Research Center, Historic population losses continue across Puerto Rico, March 24, 2016

U.S. Department of Treasury, We Must Avoid Another Lost Decade in Puerto Rico, February 24, 2016

Email interview, Harry Franqui-Rivera, historian, Center for Puerto Rican Studies, Hunter College, City University of New York, May 12, 2016

Email interview, Jens Manuel Krogstad, editor, Pew Research Center, May 10, 2016

Interview, Daniel Watson, spokesman, U.S. Treasury Department, May 10, 2016

Email interview, Virginia Hyer, spokeswoman, U.S. Census Bureau, May 11, 2016

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Treasury Secretary Lew says about 100,000 people left Puerto Rico last year

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