SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) – Thousands of Puerto Ricans streamed into the island's main convention center Saturday with notebooks in hand to learn how to prepare for a potential move to Florida at a time when the U.S. territory is struggling to retain people amid an economic recession.
Florida Expo organizers said more than 7,000 people signed up for the free event, which became a sort of one-stop shop for those seeking job opportunities, better quality of life and recommendations for the best neighborhoods and schools.
Dozens waited in line for more than an hour to submit their personal information and receive job leads and other data. Some criticized Puerto Rico's government for not doing enough to improve the lives of working-class families.
"There's more opportunities if you move," said Elsie Melendez, a 37-year-old mother of two who lives in the northern town of Vega Baja. "People who live off government support here are doing better than those of us who work and pay taxes."
The island of 3.67 million people is struggling with $70 billion in public debt and a 15.2 percent unemployment rate, higher than any U.S. state. Puerto Rico also is entering its eighth year of recession and has seen more than 450,000 people leave in the past decade.
Many have emigrated to New York and Florida, which has nearly 1 million people of Puerto Rican descent.
"I've always liked Florida, the quality of life and that it's safe," said Herbert Llaurador, 52, who lives in the southwest town of Yauco. "You see what the government does with your money over there. Here, you contribute and contribute and contribute and nothing improves."
Puerto Rico's government has taken steps to help boost the economy and attack an $820 million deficit, including raising taxes and making changes to crumbling public pension systems.
The administration of Gov. Alejandro Garcia Padilla even launched a website this week to collect ideas from citizens on how best to overcome economic problems and prevent the exodus of people. During the launch, the governor's Chief of Staff Ingrid Vila warned that those who move away often do poorly.
"Twenty-four percent of those who have left are unemployed," she said.
Still, Bernice Martes, 40, of the eastern town of Juncos, said she drove to the convention center with her husband and two children to help finalize plans to move to Florida.
"We're doing this because we feel our children will have more opportunities over there," she said.
Expo organizer William Aleman said he isn't trying to encourage people to leave Puerto Rico, but help those who have already made up their minds.
"We're not selling dreams," he said. "We're educating people about the reality of moving ... There are people who say that living in Florida is like being in Disney. They're wrong."
Sponsors of the event included Florida Technical College and local newspaper El Nuevo Dia. Aleman said he's planning a second one next year because of this one's popularity.