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Illegal Immigration Hurts Low-Wage U.S. Workers

(p. C1) 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.

. . .

(p. C2) Dr. Borjas, who left Cuba in 1962, when he was 12 years old, has long challenged the idea that immigration has few downsides. One of his studies in the early 2000s analyzed decades of national data to conclude that immigrants generally do push down wages for native workers, particularly high-school dropouts.

One Sunday morning in 2015, while working on his book, Dr. Borjas recalls, he decided to revisit the Mariel boatlift. He focused on U.S.-born high-school dropouts and applied more sophisticated analytical methods than had been available to Dr. Card a quarter-century earlier.

Dr. Borjas found a steep decline in wages for low-skilled workers in Miami in the years after the boatlift--in the range of 10% to 30%. "Even the most cursory reexamination of some old data with some new ideas can reveal trends that radically change what we think we know," he wrote in his initial September 2015 paper.

. . .

Dr. Borjas has spent decades swimming against the tide in his profession by focusing on immigration's costs rather than its benefits. He said that he sees a parallel to the way many economists look at international trade. Long seen as a positive force for growth, trade is now drawing attention from some economists looking for its ill effects on factory towns. "I don't know why the profession has this huge lag and this emphasis on the benefits from globalization in general without looking at the other side," Dr. Borjas said.

. . .

Dr. Borjas's research, including his recent work on Mariel, has found fans on the other side of the debate. When he testified at a Senate hearing in March 2016, then-Sen. Sessions welcomed his rebuttal to Dr. Card's paper. "That study, I could never understand it because it goes against common sense of [the] free market: greater supply, lower costs," Mr. Sessions said. "That's just the way the world works."

. . .

Dr. Borjas welcomes what he calls a more realistic approach to immigration under the Trump administration. "If you knew what the options are, who gets hurt and who wins by each of these options, you can make a much more intelligent decision rather than relying on wishful thinking," he said. "Which is what a lot of immigration, trade debates tend to be about--that somehow this will all work out, and everybody will be happy."

For the full commentary, see:

Ben Leubsdorf. "The Immigration Experiment." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., June 17, 2017): C1-C2.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date June 16, 2017, and has the title "The Great Mariel Boatlift Debate: Does Immigration Lower Wages?")

The book by Borjas, mentioned in the passage quoted above, is:

Borjas, George J. We Wanted Workers: Unraveling the Immigration Narrative. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2016.

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