When President Donald Trump’s senior adviser addressed reporters Wednesday defending the administration’s new immigration push, he drew on recent history from an unexpected place: Miami.
In a heated conversation defending the proposed RAISE Act, which would steeply slash legal immigration by imposing a merit-based system, senior adviser Stephen Miller pointed to a study on the Mariel boatlift, the 1980 exodus of about 130,000 Cuban refugees, as proof that allowing more low-skilled immigrants into the country would hurt native workers.
“You’ve seen over time as a result of this historic flow of unskilled immigration, a shift in wealth from the working class to wealthier corporations and businesses,” Miller said generally of the bill in a White House press briefing. “It’s been very unfair for American workers, but especially for immigrant workers, African American workers and Hispanic workers, and blue-collar workers in general across the country.”
But the Mariel boatlift, which has been studied repeatedly as a measurable instance of immigration into the United States, has been a volleyball among economists who debate what conclusions can be drawn from it.
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A recent study Miller cited, by Cuban-born Harvard professor George Borjas, asserts that the boatlift caused pay among native-born Miami high school dropouts, many of whom were black, to plummet by up to 30 percent. But his research, drawn from Census and federal labor data, contradicts a 1990 study by then-Princeton professor David Card saying the boatlift “had virtually no effect on the wages or unemployment rates of less-skilled workers.”
Card’s study had been widely cited for decades before Borjas’ work, and some economists have since criticized Borjas’ research as misleading for examining only a subset of high school dropouts excluding female and Hispanic workers. But the Harvard professor’s conclusions have been used by Republicans including Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Trump himself in past speeches as support for curbing immigration, the Miami Herald reported last month.
Wednesday’s talking point from Miller, in response to a question from the New York Times’ Glenn Thrush, suggests the administration plans to continue making the boatlift — and Borjas’ study — a talking point.
Thrush had asked Miller to cite statistics, saying several other studies “don’t show a correlation between low-skilled immigration and the loss of jobs for native workers.”
Miller responded by mentioning Borjas’ study, which he said proved the boatlift “actually did reduce wages for workers who were living there at the time.”
Miller also sparred with Cuban-American CNN correspondent Jim Acosta in Wednesday’s briefing, after Acosta cited the inscription on the Statue of Liberty and asked if the bill breaks with the nation’s historical stance of welcoming immigrants.
Miller responded that the inscription “is not actually part of the original Statue of Liberty,” and later criticized Acosta’s “cosmopolitan bias” in asking about a proposal that would prioritize English speakers for green-card applications.