“I lost my house, I lost everything,” the 50-year-old native of Cabo Rojo, on the island’s southwestern shore, told The Daily Beast.
Looking to help rebuild her mother’s home, and to provide for her own daughters and grandchildren on the island, Ocasio Borrero relocated to Florida with plans of staying at a friend’s mobile home in Daytona Beach and working at a hospital. In an interview, she described how, in the months after arriving, she was evicted, fired, lost her mother, dealt with bouts of homelessness and pneumonia, moved to Tampa, then Orlando, learned English, got remarried, suffered a miscarriage, and struggled to treat her epilepsy and chronic high blood pressure.
She also claimed that staff at a shelter damaged her birth certificate, impairing her search for employment. But with the assistance of the nonprofit Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, Ocasio Borrero registered to vote and cast her first-ever ballot at her presidential primary in March.
Now she’s working with the Florida branch of another activist group, Vote Riders, to update her Florida state identification card with her latest address so that she can vote in the general election next week without the risk of any complications. If she succeeds, she could join a new pool of dislocated voters who have long been hyped, but have yet to materialize, as a decisive force in Florida politics.
“Every time you change [your address], it’s a job,” said Ocasio Borrero. “But you have to vote. This is important. Very, very important. This is a crucial time. You need to vote for the change, to help our community.”
Fleeing environmental and economic devastation, an estimated 300,000 Puerto Ricans had decamped to the Alligator State by 2019, even before a wave of earthquakes racked their native island. The mass evacuation of so many U.S. citizens from the territory into the perennial swing state was followed by a deluge of speculation about a new community of voters—enraged at President Donald Trump’s uninspired response to the crisis—who might counterbalance the Cuban refugee community that has bent the peninsula to the right for decades.
“An Exodus From Puerto Rico Could Remake Florida Politics,” blared an October 2017 headline in The New York Times.
Even though Ocasio Borrero managed to cast her ballot once before, community leaders and organizers told The Daily Beast that the sort of obstacles she encountered may keep many recent arrivals from Puerto Rico from participating in the process.
Marcos Vilar, a political strategist and executive director of Alianza for Progress, noted that the much-touted “Maria voter” failed to materialize in 2018. That’s when GOP Gov. Rick Scott ousted Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson and the Republican Rep. Ron DeSantis beat Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum to capture the governor’s mansion.
“They're just struggling to make it,” said Vilar, whose group organizes Puerto Ricans and immigrant communities around a liberal agenda. “And to many of them, unfortunately, politics or elections may come to them, on the pyramid of needs, way at the bottom.”
Vilar and others pointed to Florida’s requirement that voters present a valid identification at the polls. Taken in tandem with the stringent documentation standards residents must meet to obtain a drivers license or ID card, plus the COVID-19-related lockdown of the offices in Puerto Rico which maintain such documentation, and Puerto Ricans’ ability to exercise their franchise is in serious jeopardy.
This was not a problem for those who arrived in the first months after Maria savaged the island, and who touched down at Kissimmee, Miami, or Orlando airports, according to Father Jose Rodriguez of Orlando’s Iglesia Episcopal Jesús de Nazaret. Scott, then governor, staged multi-agency resource centers at each of those hubs in late 2017 into early 2018, which included mobile licensing units that let evacuees swiftly obtain Florida licenses and ID cards.
Rodriguez, who is completing a doctorate on the Puerto Rican diaspora, suggested there was a political motivation afoot: those who arrived from the territory in the 1980s and 1990s often voted Republican. But then Democrats set about organizing the latest wave, and the outreach effort soon ended.
"That welcome mat was pulled from under their feet,” argued Rodriguez. "Florida elections are often won by very thin margins. So this influx of voters, who all come from the same geographic area and have a lot in common with each other, could really be the tipping point that turns Florida from being a toss-up to being solidly in one column."
In a statement, Chris Hartline, a spokesperson for Scott, told The Daily Beast, “That’s ridiculous. As Governor, Senator Scott was swift in his response to Hurricane Maria and assisting Puerto Rican families coming to Florida. Since then, Senator Scott has visited the island multiple times and continues to work closely with Puerto Rico officials to support the American citizens of Puerto Rico.”
The Puerto Rican Federal Affairs Administration did not respond to a request for comment.
For its part, the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles asserted it had made strenuous efforts to help those fleeing Puerto Rico, and that it had issued 116,000 licenses and identification cards to those arriving from the island since October 2017. Thanks to an executive order by Scott, in many of these cases, the agency waived all fees.
Further, it argued that the state voter identification law is really not so strict; poll workers will accept multiple documents featuring a photograph and signature, including a U.S. passport, a debit or credit card, or a firearm permit.
“The department provided credentialing services to thousands of customers entering Florida from Puerto Rico,” said spokesman Aaron Keller. “The department has also coordinated closely with the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration’s Regional Office, based in Orlando, Florida, to assist impacted customers with driver license and ID services.”
But Puerto Ricans have to go out of their way to obtain a license or identification, which usually means securing their birth certificate and other material from the government in Puerto Rico. Further complicating matters is a 2010 statute passed on the island to combat fraud, which caused all birth certificates issued up to that point to expire. Many never saw the urgency of renewing these documents—until now.
To facilitate, the Puerto Rican government opened a vital records office in Orlando in October 2018. But the scope of the task was overwhelming. One source, who asked to speak anonymously because of the sensitive nature of their work, described people arriving at the office attempting to get a birth certificate in hopes of securing up-to-date identification—only to learn they needed an up-to-date identification to get the birth certificate. Others had no identification at all, having lost their documents with their homes in the successive natural disasters.
According to some Floridians familiar with the process, there was also a manpower problem.
“The office in Orlando was like two or three employees only, and they were getting two or three hundred people daily,” Linda Perez Davila, who has struggled to register and educate voters in Tampa through her organization, Boricuas de Corazon, told The Daily Beast. “Most of the Puerto Rican people did not vote in the primaries, one, because of the documentation and two, because they didn’t understand the system.”
COVID-19 only exacerbated matters, as government offices and functions in Puerto Rico shut down amid the pandemic. Jazlyn Gallego, a coordinator at Vote Riders, described a month-long backlog of vital records requests at the Puerto Rican Department of Health. And because of the pandemic, those who arrived following the late 2019 and early 2020 earthquakes found themselves even more economically battered than those who came two years earlier.
“People were having their homes destroyed and literally packing up and going in the middle of the night,” she said. “You’re walking into a pandemic when you move, so you're leaving financial instability already to arrive into financial instability.”
Even if the bureaucratic obstacles ease and the pandemic ends, it is unclear whether the displaced Puerto Ricans will ever bring about the political realignment originally predicted. The Orlando Sentinel reported in September that a Census report surprisingly found the number of Puerto Ricans residing in Central Florida had dipped to pre-Maria levels—possibly because of a sampling error, but also possibly because some are returning home.
Ocasio Borrero intends to go back as well, once she has saved enough money, in order to be with her family.
"I have a lot of people who need me,” she said. “I’m a warrior. I use my voice, and I take care of my people.”