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Stephen Miller
Photo by Gage Skidmore / Flickr

White House Uses Debunked Mariel Boatlift Study to Propose Immigration Crackdown

According to virtually every sociologist except Harvard University's George Borjas, the Mariel Boatlift in the 1980s did not hurt the wages of the Miamians who were already living here. In fact, some research shows  the huge influx of Cuban migrants raised city wages in the long term.

But that didn't stop Borjas from publishing a study earlier this year blaming Marielitos for hurting the wages of uneducated Miamians. Now, despite the fact that Borjas' study had critical flaws, Trump administration adviser Stephen Miller is citing the "research" to justify a historic crackdown on legal immigrants.

"I think the most recent study I would point to is the study from George Borjas that he just did about the Mariel Boatlift," Miller said yesterday from the White House press room. "And he went back and reexamined and opened up the old data and talked about how it actually did reduce wages for workers who were living there at the time."

In the months since Borjas published his study, multiple sources have debunked his claims. Researcher Michael Clemens, from the nonprofit Center for Global Development, along with a Rutgers University economist, analyzed Borjas' recent study and found that Borjas' research had a "critical flaw" in that it incorrectly cited the U.S. Census data on which his entire findings depend.

That didn't stop the Miami Herald from confusingly publishing Borjas' research as "fact" on its front page two weeks ago.

Now Miller, Trump, and Sens. Tom Cotton and David Perdue are using Borjas' flawed study to justify an immigration crackdown that would fundamentally alter the face of Miami. The plan would roughly halve the number of immigrants legally allowed into the United States, cripple the current green-card sponsorship program that lets family members bring relatives to the States, and place an emphasis on "high-skilled" immigrants with advanced degrees. Miami, the U.S. city with the highest percentage of foreign-born residents in America, would take a shellacking: The policy would rip family members from one another and sincerely slow immigration here because roughly 75 percent of Miami's foreign-born community does not hold a college degree.

But while the media has focused on the fact that Miller insulted the Statue of Liberty yesterday, far less attention has been paid to the data he cited, which is Miami-related and deeply suspect.

Miller is relying heavily on the work of Borjas, a Cuban-born researcher whose work has faced deep pushback over the past decade because his singular focus appears to be proving that immigrants are bad for the economy. Borjas' work has been criticized from both the left and right, most notably by University of California-Berkeley economist David Card, who is adamant that Borjas is simply a xenophobe passing off sophistry as high science. Card has repeatedly called Borjas a "revisionist" with a deep-seated fear of Mexican immigrants.

In fact, the debate over whether Borjas' central thesis — that immigrants hurt the wages of native-born workers — seemed to have been put to rest ten years ago when the New York Times Magazine devoted a long-form story to Borjas' work. After conducting a massive sample of the available research on immigration and interviewing Borjas, Card, and other scientists extensively, the Times found that Borjas' claims often didn't add up and that he's a massive outlier in his field:

All things being equal, more foreigners and indeed more people of any stripe do not mean either lower wages or higher unemployment. If they did, every time a baby was born, every time a newly minted graduate entered the work force, it would be bad news for the labor market. But it isn't. Those babies eat baby food; those graduates drive automobiles. 

Notably, Borjas has also endorsed Trump's plan for a border wall, which has otherwise been roundly criticized by experts as an economic nightmare and government-spending boondoggle.

This brings us to the Mariel Boatlift, which has been the subject of significant debate among economists for the past few decades. The Boatlift — when Fidel Castro essentially tricked President Jimmy Carter into allowing nearly 125,000 Cubans into Miami — is a rare event in immigration history: a sudden, massive influx of immigrants who all arrived at nearly the same time. This gives economists and social scientists an easy way to study what a huge addition of low-skilled migrants does to a local economy. One only needs to compare Miami's 1980s wages to those from a city that didn't have a huge immigrant influx, such as Seattle or Atlanta.

In 1990, Card published a landmark study showing that the Marielitos didn't hurt the wages of native-born Miamians. In the 27 years since the study was published, Card's results have been replicated.

Card's 1990 study has long been cited as a major counterpoint to Borjas' work as an immigration critic. So this February, Borjas finally decided to take his own look at the Mariel Boatlift. In keeping with his ethos, Borjas found that Card was wrong: The flood of unskilled laborers into Miami did suppress wages, but only for high-school dropouts:

Given that at least 60% of the Marielitos were high school dropouts, this article specifically examines the wage impact for this low-skill group. This analysis overturns the prior finding that the Mariel boatlift did not affect Miami’s wage structure. The wage of high school dropouts in Miami dropped dramatically, by 10 to 30%.

Despite the fact that Borjas had been the subject of intense criticism for more than two decades, the press jumped on his latest study; he received rave reviews in the Atlantic and New Yorker. But once Borjas' peers began looking at his data, they found huge flaws.

In May, three months after Borjas published his work, Clemens at the Center for Global Development kneecapped the study. In short, Clemens found that Borjas used an inconsistent data sample: Borjas relied on the U.S. Census Bureau's "Current Population Survey" for its wage data. But in 1980, the Census Bureau drastically altered the way it gathered that information to intentionally include far more low-skilled black workers, which the Census Bureau had previously been undercounting in huge numbers.

According to Clemens, the exact shift in Miami's wages that Borjas found can be mathematically traced to the large number of unskilled black workers the Census Bureau began counting in 1980 — not the Marielitos:

This shift in sample coverage of blacks is what creates the fall in measured wages. Among men in Miami with less-than-high-school at this time, wages are much lower among blacks than non-black workers. So including more blacks in the sample would make the average wage in the sample fall, even if nothing happened to the wages of any workers in the real population of Miami where the sample was picked. Take the shift in blacks in the sample, multiply it by the black-nonblack wage gap, and you get the fall in wages that would appear in sample used in the Borjas study.

In fact, another University of California system study, published this past June 2, reexamined both Card's 1990 study and Borjas' 2017 and found similar "large measurement errors" in Borjas' work. The June 2 study instead reconfirmed Card's 1990 report showing Marielitos didn't hurt Miami's wages at all.

Surprisingly, even conservative sources have since admitted Borjas' study is likely bunk. Initially, the National Review, William F. Buckley's conservative outlet, gave Borjas' February study a glowing review. But on May 22, the Review wrote about the flaws in Borjas' work and even contacted the author to ask him about whether he had screwed up.

Borjas hasn't bothered to fully respond to the criticisms of his work. He instead claims the rise in black people in the statistics could have had something to do with the Mariel Boatlift and not the Census Bureau explicitly admitting it counted more black people. He then attacked his critics personally.

"Second, I would read this paper with the utmost skepticism — similar to the skepticism that one uses when one reads drug research funded by pharmaceutical companies," Borjas told the National Review. "The paper was paid for by Silicon Valley open-border plutocrats, and I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t buy or commission research that didn’t fit their priors."

Somehow, the Miami Herald missed all of these expert critiques and on July 20 published two articles blowing up Borjas' research as some sort of landmark moment in economics. Neither story has been updated to include the flaws in Borjas' research, and the second story is nothing short of a glowing profile of the economist. As yesterday's events show, there's no room to be irresponsible with data like this, because out-and-out bigots like Stephen Miller will find any excuse to kick brown people out of the country. This is the second time this year that the Herald has irresponsibly published articles that bash immigrants and omit critical facts.

But the rest of the media sphere has since caught on. On June 16, Bloomberg noted that the vast majority of immigration economists disagree with Borjas' work. The news outlet noted that, as the years have passed, independent analysts haven't been able to repeat his findings. With each passing year, that makes it harder to believe him.

"So overall, the weight of evidence is solidly against Borjas on the immigration question," Bloomberg wrote. "Borjas has written many papers showing harmful impacts of immigration, but an overwhelming majority of researchers in the field have found the opposite."

On July 27, Clemens, the researcher who discovered the Census Bureau error, elaborated on his findings in a post for Vox: He noted that Borjas' central theory about the Boatlift is also deeply inconsistent. Borjas believes that, as the supply of labor increased, wages decreased. But in the aggregate, wages for low-skilled Miami Hispanics actually rose after the Boatlift. He wrote:

In sum, the evidence from the Mariel boatlift continues to support the conclusion of David Card’s seminal research: There is no clear evidence that wages fell (or that unemployment rose) among the least-skilled workers in Miami, even after a sudden refugee wave sharply raised the size of that workforce.

This does not by any means imply that large waves of low-skill immigration could not displace any native workers, especially in the short term, in other times and places. But politicians’ pronouncements that immigrants necessarily do harm native workers must grapple with the evidence from real-world experiences to the contrary.

Zooming out, the entire concept that Cuban immigration was somehow bad for Miami seems historically insane. More than anything else, immigration is what has made Miami the vibrant place it is today instead of just the retirement community for old white people that the city was until Cuban migration began in the 1960s and peaked with the Boatlift. We dare anyone to walk along Calle Ocho and claim Cuban immigrants shouldn't have come here.

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