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What 'Marielitos' Say About the Impact of Immigration (US News & World Report)

April 19, 2019

From the article:

U.S. President Donald Trump's consideration of sending immigrants to so-called sanctuary cities represented by Democrats is more than possible retaliation against his political opponents. It also evokes an event nearly 40 years ago that to this day shapes the partisan debates in the United States and other countries about the impact of immigration.

That debate focuses on whether a large influx of low-skilled immigrants hurts native workers. That answer is complicated and depends upon how studies are framed, according to economists and research conducted around the world. Some economists say low-skilled immigrants from poor countries can hurt low-skilled native workers, while others say such an influx can bolster a local economy.

The Mariel boatlift in 1980 is highly instructive about the impact low-skilled immigrants have on native workers, being the focus of numerous studies. The boatlift was a mass migration of Cubans into the U.S. that began on April 20 of that year and lasted through October, and was allowed by then-President Fidel Castro after a severe downturn in Cuba's economy.

In all, an estimated 125,000 people traveled from Cuba to the U.S. and after reports emerged that some of the migrants had been released from Cuban jails, a heated public debate began in America about the merits of allowing large immigrant populations. A sizable portion of those Cubans, called "Marielitos," permanently settled in the Miami area, says economist Michael Clemens, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, a nonprofit think tank based in Washington.

"Everyone assumed at the time the flood (of immigrants) would have to (adversely) influence the labor market," Clemens says. But that didn't happen, Clemens says, who points to research published in 1990 by economist David Card of the University of California-Berkeley as the lasting standard that examines immigration's impact on a local economy.

Card's study found no changes in wage or employment trends between Miami and other similar-sized U.S. cities in his study. Social scientists have since looked at several factors that may explain Card's findings, and a 2017 study by Harvard economist George Borjas challenged the 1990 research by asserting that low-skilled immigrants do damage the employment prospects for native workers.

But the Borjas study is flawed, Clemens says. In a separate 2017 study that Clemens co-authored with Jennifer Hunt, Clemens says Borjas' study ignored female and Hispanic workers and people who had high school diplomas Additionally, Borjas looked only at male workers aged 25-55, and placed an overly representative weight on African-American workers compared to the overall Miami labor market.

However, Borjas forcefully contested Clemens and Hunt by presenting data in 2017 that showed that even removing African-American workers from his analysis did not alter his findings. "In short, using the increase in the relative size of Miami's black workforce after 1980 to dismiss my Mariel evidence performs the job of obfuscating the debate further, but does little to clarify," Borjas wrote.

The flaw in the argument that an influx of workers will adversely affect native workers is in looking at people as if they are bananas, Clemens says. When the supply of bananas increases, the value of each individual banana falls. That isn't the case with humans, Clemens says, whose research shows that as more people arrive in a local economy, demand for goods and services such as housing and food also increases.

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What should policymakers keep in mind when crafting laws to handle immigration? Clemens says it's simple: Countries need to have clear, consistent lawful channels for migration.

"When people have legal status, they make larger financial contributions to society," Clemens says. "It's more beneficial to the country of origin. It's also beneficial to the home country, where people can send remittances. Plus, you're taking money away from smugglers."

Related Experts

Photo of Michael Clemens
Co-Director of Migration, Displacement, and Humanitarian Policy and Senior Fellow