By Michael Matza

Brenda Nazario was drowning.

The 58-year-old mother of three and resident of Puerto Rico's port of Ponce had worked almost two decades as a government social worker but earned less than $800 a month.

Her husband, a marina manager, lost half his pay in a public-sector cutback. The couple declared bankruptcy last year.

So nine months ago, Nazario moved to Philadelphia for a job with Asociacion Puertorriquenos en Marcha, a 45-year-old multiservice center.

Now she spends her days helping clients in Juniata and Feltonville. She hopes her husband, Elizer Maldonado, will leave the island of 3.5 million and join her here in the spring. Her son Joshua, 20, already lives with her and works in a warehouse. When her daughter, Nadja, 22, finishes her studies in criminology, Nazario said, she plans to join Puerto Rico's growing diaspora, too. Nazario's elder son, Fernando, 35, who was a chef at an assisted-living home in Puerto Rico, arrived in Philadelphia last week and got a job at the same warehouse as his half brother.

The family reflects the island's largest wave of migration in decades _ with good reason. Unemployment is at 12 percent, the poverty rate at 45 percent, the median household income below $20,000.

"Puerto Rico is having such a hard time," Nazario said. "You find people with advanced degrees working as cashiers. You pay the bills and don't have enough left over for a movie."

Puerto Ricans, who from birth are U.S. citizens, have historically moved to the mainland in times of trouble, but this latest wave of migration is desperate and accelerating.

Because, unlike Nazario, the leaders of the hard-pressed Caribbean island do not have the bankruptcy option.

That's because Puerto Rico, a former Spanish colony that the United States claimed as a territory after a war with Spain in 1898, is neither state nor nation. Like Greece, it wants to restructure its payments to bondholders. Like Detroit, it wants protection from creditors. Neither is possible with its current, non-sovereign status.

The Obama administration has warned of "harmful consequences ... on the island and beyond" if no solution is found.

The immigration surge is most visible in Florida but also felt in Philadelphia, home to America's second-largest Puerto Rican population after New York City.

More than 192,000 people left Puerto Rico between 2010 and the end of 2014. While there are no hard figures as to how many came to live in Philadelphia, the U.S. government estimates that 1,600 resettled here in the last year.

Of more than 187,000 Latinos in the city, Puerto Ricans make up about 121,000, according to the last census. Estimates since 2010 put the number at 133,535.

The influx extends to other parts of Pennsylvania.

Reading, a magnet for Puerto Ricans in Berks County, has a growing population of about 60,000 Puerto Ricans, said Michael Toledo, executive director of the city's Centro Hispano multiservice center.

"We are seeing history repeat itself," he said, citing the "Great Migration" that brought Puerto Ricans to harvest crops during World War II and this 21st-century wave, which includes highly educated migrants. "We are back in the situation where our communities are feeling an uptick in migration," said Rafael Collazo, who lives in Philadelphia and directs political campaigns for the National Council of La Raza, a Latino advocacy group.

"I have 27 cousins" in Puerto Rico, he said. "The most educated have all moved away."

Nilda Ruiz, executive director of Asociacion Puertorriquenos en Marcha, hired Nazario and a handful of other social workers from Puerto Rico and brought them to Philadelphia in the last year.

Writing in The Wall Street Journal in August, Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate in economics, and Mark Medish, a Clinton administration treasury official, attributed Puerto Rico's woes to mismanagement but also a long history of Washington slights, including underpayments for Medicare and Medicaid; the North American Free Trade Agreement, which diverted trade to Mexico; and the 1917 Jones Act, which grants citizenship but also forces Puerto Rico to use high-cost American shipping carriers for all imports and exports.

Puerto Rico's quest for a political identity has included drives for independence or U.S. statehood.

Three nonbinding referendums on Puerto Rico's status have been held on the island since 1967. In November 2012, more than half the voters favored a change from the island's current territorial status; a plurality favored statehood, although supporters of the status quo rejected the outcome, citing the large number of voters who left the ballot questions blank.

Ruiz said she received some pushback from a Puerto Rican academic who argued that Ruiz's recruiting on the island contributed to Puerto Rico's "brain drain."

Ruiz said she saw an opportunity to serve her agency and Puerto Ricans in need.

"I'd prefer they came because they wanted to," and not because Puerto Rico's economy makes it imperative, she said. "That's the rub."

(c)2015 The Philadelphia Inquirer