In 1990, David Card, then an economics professor at Princeton University, published a paper in which he examined the effect of the Cuban Mariel Boatlift of 1980 on the labor market in Miami. Despite his finding that the influx had increased the size of the labor force in the Miami metropolitan area by 7%, Card concluded that this “had virtually no effect on the wage rates of less-skilled non-Cuban workers,” and “there is no evidence of an increase in unemployment among less-skilled blacks or other non-Cuban workers.”
That publication, and much of Card’s subsequent work on immigration, has been cited by immigration expansionists as definitive proof that a large inflow of low-skilled immigrants into a local labor market has no negative effect on the employment or wage situation for native workers already there. Their contention is that “facts don’t lie," but the problem with Card's work is that it rests not on facts but on assumptions that reflect his worldview, not real world conditions.
In 2017, Harvard economist George Borjas published a paper that reexamined the pertinent wage and employment data in Miami around the time of the Mariel Boatlift.
The examination of wage trends among high school dropouts quickly overturns the stylized fact that the supply shock did not affect Miami’s wage structure. In fact, the absolute wage of high school dropouts dropped dramatically, as did their wage relative to that of either high school graduates or college graduates. The drop in the average wage of the least-skilled Miamians between 1977–1979 and 1981–1986 was substantial, between 10 and 30%. The examination of wage trends in every other city...shows that the steep post-Mariel wage drop experienced by Miami’s low-skill workforce was a very unusual event
A new working paper co-authored by Borjas has now reexamined the employment prospects for workers by looking at job vacancies in Miami in the wake of Mariel. Borjas and his coauthors (Jason Anastasopoulos, Gavin G. Cook, and Michael Lachanski) also looked at job vacancies during other “supply shocks,” such as the initial wave of Cuban refugees in the early 1960s, and during the period following Hurricane Andrew in 1992.
They found “the labor market in Miami responded strongly to the Mariel boatlift in 1980” with employers much less likely to place help wanted ads in order to attract job applicants. The Help-Wanted Index (HWI), a monthly measurement of the number of help-wanted ads across the United States, fell 40% in Miami post-Mariel. It took about decade for the HWI to recover.
Borjas work on the Mariel Boatlift is important not because he makes sweeping claims about immigration to the United States based on the Miami example. It is important because proponents of mass immigration have for years made the argument that Card’s original conclusions prove once and for all that immigration can never harm the wage and job prospects of lower-skill American workers. However, as we have seen in a spate of recent news stories, they take different view when it comes to restricting immigration. In that case their argument is that fewer immigrants means more jobs are open to American workers, and employers have to hike pay.
We can call this the Cato maxim: Increasing immigration does not result in increased job competition or lower wages, but reducing immigration does result in decreased job competition and higher wages.
Borjas certainly has more than his share of critics who treat his work on Mariel not as an interesting and welcome contribution to the debate, but as apostasy. This is because, as Borjas recognizes, “the narrative that immigration is good for everyone must live on.”
The attacks on Borjas’ work do have an effect, as they are parroted in traditional media outlets as proof that his methodology is flawed when, in reality, none of Borjas’ critics have invalidated his findings. On the other hand, it is safe to say that Borjas has effectively dismantled Card’s "facts" about the Mariel Boatlift and its effect on Miami's labor market.
With immigration expansionist having to give up the example of 1980s Miami, perhaps they can be consoled knowing they’ll always have Paris.
ERIC RUARK is the Director of Research for NumbersUSA
Updated: Wed, Jun 6th 2018 @ 10:30pm EDT