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Puerto Ricans emigrate as jobs disappear

By Ward Morehouse IIIStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / February 2, 1982



New York

Although it's warm and sunny on the sandy beaches of San Juan, Puerto Rico, growing numbers of Puerto Ricans are leaving their island home for the US mainland.

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For many, the indigent and more well-to-do alike, one of the first stops in New York is the nondescript offices of the nonprofit National Puerto Rican Forum (NPRF) in Queens. Puerto Rican lawyers and engineers come here to enroll in the job placement program. Blue collar laborers and their families, who have little money and find few job opportunities, often come for more basic reasons: food and shelter.

Puerto Rico has suffered - perhaps to a greater extent than other areas of the United States - from President Reagan's economic policies. The tax package passed by Congress last year has made the island less attractive to potential investors by, in effect, neutralizing the tax advantage Puerto Rico has long enjoyed.

Also, in recent years almost one-third of the island's GNP came from federal subsidies. So budget cuts, which first surfaced during the Carter administration , have triggered deep cuts in social service benefits of every kind, including food stamps and job training. Unemployment has soared.

Nelson Famadas, chairman of Puerto Rico Gov. Carlos Romero Barcelo's economic advisory council, says that according to the most recent figures, unemployment is at 21.6 percent, up from 17 percent last April.

White House officials say they plan to take steps to shore up the commonwealth's ailing economy, with the intention of paving the way for statehood as early as 1985. Such steps fit into the new ''Caribbean Basin'' initiatives President Reagan touched on in his State of the Union address. They would not comment on what these plans would entail.

These same White House officials assert they plan to pursue statehood despite warnings from close observers that it could spur a new round of terrorist activity aimed at delaying and derailing altogether Puerto Rican statehood.

While there are no statistics to document accurately the exact extent of migration to the mainland, Josephine Perez, manager of the Queens outreach center, says she's seen a ''great increase'' in the numbers of islanders coming to the center in the past year. Judging from interviews with Puerto Rican government officials and other experts, those streaming into the center may be just the tip of the iceberg.

Perhaps the most visible evidence of an influx of Puerto Ricans into New York , aside from the bustle at the center, is their growing presence on Manhattan's Lower East Side. That part of the city is still a kind of ''way station'' for people first setting foot in the mainland US - Jews, Poles, Chinese, as well as Puerto Ricans. Unlike the others, however, Puerto Ricans are US citizens by birth.

Ironically, according to Miss Perez and other NPRF officials, the same administration policies which have made life difficult in Puerto Rico by curtailing jobs have had a detrimential effect on the Puerto Ricans seeking new homes and jobs in New York and other US mainland cities.

In Washington, Richard Neil, executive assistant to White House Domestic Policy Assistant Richard Williamson, says that a White House interdepartmental task force ''continues to focus on the economic development of Puerto Rico and its relationship with the mainland. It has been and continues to be a vehicle for communication and cooperation between Puerto Rico and the Reagan administration. It's our intent that it will continue.''

Specifically, Mr. Neil told the Monitor that the US Treasury Department has been ''working closely with Puerto Rico on tax policy'' that would be advantageous to the island's industrial development.

Neil stressed that one of the primary goals - ''a heathly economic climate'' in the Caribbean - would not be sought at the expense of Puerto's Rico's own economic interests.