Ben Leubsdorf writes in the WSJ:
“In the spring and summer of 1980, some 125,000 Cuban refugees sailed from the port town of Mariel on fishing boats and pleasure craft toward the U.S., many destined to settle in Miami.
Nearly four decades later, that exodus is at the center of an unresolved, sometimes bitter argument among economists, hinging on a basic question: When foreigners come to the U.S., does their presence drive down the wages of native workers? The long-running dispute has gained new relevance as the Trump administration tries to implement and enforce a stricter immigration policy.
Research published a decade after the Mariel boatlift, as well as more recent analyses, concluded that the influx of Cuban migrants didn’t significantly raise unemployment or lower wages for Miamians. Immigration advocates said the episode showed that the U.S. labor market could quickly absorb migrants at little cost to American workers.
But Harvard University’s George Borjas, a Cuban-born specialist in immigration economics, reached very different conclusions. Looking at data for Miami after the boatlift, he concluded that the arrival of the Marielitos led to a large decline in wages for low-skilled local workers.
“This is his moment,” said David Card, the author of the early research on the boatlift that Dr. Borjas is seeking to upend. (The Justice Department declined to comment, and the White House didn’t respond to requests for comment.)
Dr. Borjas has sparred for years with Dr. Card, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley, as well as with Giovanni Peri of the University of California, Davis. In 2015, Dr. Borjas and Dr. Peri released papers three months apart that arrived at wildly different conclusions about Mariel.
The argument among the academics—all immigrants themselves—has escalated into charges of bias and bad faith. Dr. Peri and a co-author dismissed Dr. Borjas’s study as having “serious limitations.” Dr. Borjas fired back that “sloppiness” in their own paper “helps obfuscate what your eyes can clearly see and leads to a claim that nothing at all happened in post-Mariel Miami.”
Dr. Card and Dr. Peri, reviewing a textbook by Dr. Borjas several months later, said that he only “presents half the story about the economics of immigration.” Last fall, in another book, Dr. Borjas compared Dr. Peri to Marxist-Leninist teachers in his native Cuba: “They believed. All that was left was to compel everyone else to believe as well.”
The real-world stakes in the dispute are considerable. More than 43 million U.S. residents were born somewhere else, and most of the rest are descended from immigrants. Still, for more than two centuries, waves of migration have provoked backlashes from Americans worried about the nation’s economy, culture and social makeup.
Among economists today, there is little controversy about the benefits of immigration for the economy as a whole. A roughly 500-page assessment last year by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, which reviewed decades of research, concluded that immigrants are “integral to the nation’s economic growth” and have little or no effect on overall employment and earnings for workers already in the U.S.
The report said that experiences aren’t the same for everyone and noted that some studies have found “sizable negative short run wage impacts” for U.S.-born high-school dropouts, the group most likely to compete for work with low-skilled immigrants.
“There’s no free lunch. There’s going to be some effect of immigration” on wages, said Pia Orrenius, a senior economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas and a member of the panel that wrote the 2016 report. But, she added, the flexible U.S. economy adapts and should render any hit to the wages of native workers “a short-run phenomenon.”
Those most exposed to competition from new arrivals have long been a focus for Dr. Borjas. “Immigration is not like manna from heaven,” he said. “It can be great on average, but it doesn’t mean that every single person benefits.”
Read the entire article at the link.
First, I find it interesting that Dr. Borjas, who came here as an immigrant, seems so highly motivated to prove that those who came after him weren’t as “worthy.” Sort of a “I’m OK, but you guys not so much” approach.
Second, none of these studies seem to go into the human element of immigration. What were to forces that drove the Marielitos to come? What have they accomplished in the long run? Did Americans in low wage jobs in Miami really sink into poverty and go on welfare, or did they just move on to other types of work that perhaps paid more?
Third, why don’t economists spend less time on analyzing the past and more time on figuring out how to minimize or avoid any adverse effects of immigration, even if those effects are only short-term and unequally distributed across the working population.
Fourth, I was at the “Legacy INS” during the boatlift and was involved in an intense effort to stop it. We used arrests, mass detention, vessel seizures, fines, criminal prosecutions, deterrents, warnings and public service announcements, and exclusion proceedings. But, frankly, nothing really worked until Castro closed the port of Mariel again. The Cuban Adjustment Act, which is still in effect, also made it difficult or impossible to return Cubans who had no prior criminal records.
Eventually, the Reagan Administration came up with controversial policy of high seas interdiction, which has been used in the Caribbean to some extent by every succeeding Administration. Although interdiction survived Supreme Court review, it has criticized by many and is inconsistent with at least the spirit, if not the letter, of the UN Convention and Protocol, to which we are a party. I doubt, however, that interdiction could have stopped the Cuban boat lift, given the large number of boats and American citizens of Cuban descent who participated in going to Mariel to transport relatives, friends, or former neighbors or co-workers who wanted to leave Cuba.
Fifth, and finally, I find the Mariel Boatlift to be one of the “major events” of modern U.S. refugee history. It has left a legacy of four enforcement strategies that are still with us today:
* The use of long-term mass civil immigration detention as a deterrent;
* High seas interdiction;
* Overall negative vibes and case law on asylum applicants who are part of a so-callled “mass migration situation” (“Scarface Syndrome,” a reference to the Al Pacino movie about a Cuban drug kingpin who used the boatlift to get a foothold in the U.S.);
* A belief that the case-by-case adjudication procedures established by the Refugee Act of 1980 are inadequate to handle mass migrations (probably one of the origins of “expedited removal” procedures).