LAWRENCE — Puerto Rico’s bankruptcy and the collapse of its government services is triggering a new wave of Latino immigration to this country similar to one in the 1980s when Dominicans fled the disinvestment and poverty brought on by a corrupt dictator propped up by the United States, the author of a recent book on Lawrence’s Latino history said Sunday.
“That’s already happening,” Llana Barber, author of “Latino City: Immigration and Urban Crisis in Lawrence, Massachusetts, 1945-2000,” said at a reading of her book at the Lawrence Public Library, when asked if Puerto Rico’s debt crisis would bring on another wave of immigrants fleeing an economic crisis caused, at least in part, by U.S. policies.
Barber said Puerto Rico’s debt crisis has triggered a humanitarian one, which she said is causing people to immigrate to the United States “at unprecedented levels.”
“The wave of Puerto Rican immigration dramatically accelerated in the last few years,” Barber said. “There’s no evidence that that’s about to change.”
Puerto Rico filed for bankruptcy in federal court May 3, citing $123 billion in debt and pension obligations that it can’t pay. The U.S. territory is already closing as many as 150 public schools and considering other major cutbacks, including reducing pension payments to retired government workers, limiting health care services and canceling infrastructure projects.
The repercussions of Puerto Rico’s debt crisis were being felt even during Barber’s presentation on Dominican immigration to Lawrence in the last half of the 20th century.
As Barber read passages from her book to an audience of about 75 people, Puerto Ricans were voting on whether to seek to become the 51st state. They voted overwhelmingly for statehood in the nonbinding referendum, although the turnout was just 23 percent after opponents said the vote was rigged and called for a boycott. Barber declined to speculate on whether Puerto Ricans now arriving in the United States might settle in Lawrence as they did in the 1950s, when they led the Caribbean migration to the city and remained its largest ethnic group until Dominicans arrived in the 1980s. Combined, Latinos now make up about 75 percent of the city’s population. Data was not immediately available Sunday on the numbers of Puerto Ricans arriving in the United States since the territory’s debt crisis began developing a few years ago.
Barber said at least part of the crisis in Puerto Rico can be traced to U.S. policy, including a law enacted when the United States took possession of the island from Spain in 1898 that required all trade to and from the island be carried on American ships.
In her book, Barber said a century of similar actions by the United States in both Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic helped worsen economic and political conditions on both islands, which in turn spurred the migrations to the United States.
Most recently in the Dominican Republic, she cited former President Lyndon Johnson’s decision in 1965 to send 26,000 Marines to suppress an uprising against President Joaquin Balaguer out of fear that his opposition included Communist sympathizers. Years of repression and economic stagnation ensued, presided over by a man Barber said was “the Western Hemisphere’s most infamous dictator.” The consequences were felt in U.S. cities, primarily New York City and then Lawrence, Barber said.
“At the same time that U.S. imperialism cut off avenues to improve conditions at home, it also drew Latin American nations closer to the United States in many ways, forging links along which migrants would then travel,” she wrote.
In Lawrence, the Dominicans who began arriving in force in the 1980s found a city in an accelerated decline as the mills shut down, presenting the new immigrants with vastly different circumstances than earlier waves of immigrants found, Barber said. At the same time, Barber said local policies in municipalities surrounding Lawrence hastened the city’s decline. Among them, she cited aggressive efforts by North Andover and Andover to create suburban parks that attracted companies such as Western Electric and Raytheon, which drew workers from Lawrence but contributed nothing to the city’s tax base and sent them back to Lawrence at the end of the workday.
“Prosperity in the suburbs never trickled back to Lawrence,” she said. She said large-lot zoning in the suburbs around Lawrence and discriminatory lending policies by banks – encouraged at the time by the Federal Housing Administration – kept working-class Latinos in the city from moving to the suburbs where they worked, further concentrating poverty in Lawrence. At the library, Lawrence resident Richard Russell asked Barber why Lowell, a similar former mill city with a large immigrant population – most recently from Asia – has had a stronger recovery than Lawrence.
Barber responded that the “white flight” which occurred in Lowell stayed within the city because it has a much larger number of single-family homes the upwardly mobile would seek as they moved from the downtown core. She added that the state’s decision to build a UMass campus in Lowell provided a “backbone” on which to build the city’s recovery. In what may be Barber’s most controversial finding, she said in her book and in her reading at the library that the Dominicans and other Latino immigrants rescued Lawrence rather than hastened the decline that began in earnest after World War II.
She said they turned around the city’s declining population trend, opened local businesses and, beginning after the riots of 1984, organized to gain political power and build a community.
“If you walk through the (Campagnone) Common, there are people out,” she said. “There’s a different trajectory than in the crisis era.”
Responding to one of a dozen questions about the role recent mayors may have played in the city’s decline, Barber faulted them for working too hard to attract outside wealth rather than to recognize the potential of the city’s Latino population.
“It took awhile for officials to recognize that Latinos are essential to the future of the city,” she said. “They were slow on the uptake. Many mayors, for personal or politically strategic reasons – playing to their base – wanted to attract a middle class. They wanted less affordable housing. That didn’t work in Lawrence.
New wealth didn’t work as a development strategy. Lawrence stayed poor. But Latinos started businesses and pooled resources to buy homes. Political leaders were slow to recognize the potential of people in the city, rather than looking for a white knight.”
Barber is an American studies professor at the State University of New York. Her book was published this year by The University of North Carolina Press.