Miami-Dade County

Controversial Mariel study puts Cuban-American professor in middle of storm

In this May 1980 file photo, refugees from Cuba stand on the deck of their boat as they arrive in Key West. In the Mariel boatlift, more than 100,000 Cubans fled the island by sea in the space of just six months.
In this May 1980 file photo, refugees from Cuba stand on the deck of their boat as they arrive in Key West. In the Mariel boatlift, more than 100,000 Cubans fled the island by sea in the space of just six months. AP

For decades, George Borjas, 66, has toiled in what was generally the quiet field of immigration labor economics. His wonkish work was filled with dense mathematics that made him a leader in his field and led to a professorship at Harvard, while being completely unknown to the general public.

Now, after publishing a study that Cubans arriving in the Mariel boatlift caused dramatic decreases in the wages of native-born Miamians, he’s become the center of a heated debates, with fellow academics charging him with publishing “spurious” studies and Borjas firing back that he’s the victim of “fake news.”

Memories of the Mariel boat lift at Cuba Nostalgia 2010. In English and Spanish.

That’s evidence that even among academics, immigration — like so many other topics — has become intensely political. “This acrimonious debate is unlikely to be resolved soon,” concluded a Bloomberg analysis in June on the Mariel debate.

Read more: Wages for native-born Miami workers took a hit from Mariel boatlift, new study says

Asked what he thought about the tone of the 2016 presidential campaigns — with frequent stereotypes of many immigrants being criminals — Borjas objected to the implications he himself was xenophobic because he didn’t come to a politically correct conclusion:

“I hate that,” he said in a telephone interview. “I absolutely detest that. It’s been a Twitter storm, and all these blogs, and who needs that.” If he were starting out today, he said, he’d never consider going into such a politically loaded subject as immigration economics.

borjas
Professor George Borjas Harvard University

Born Jorge Jesus Borjas, he came to Miami with his mother in 1962, at the age of 12, and settled for about two years at a home on Northeast 41st Street, an area that was then mostly Cuban immigrants. Borjas says his mother had trouble finding work, and they moved to New Jersey, to be near her sisters.

Like many Cubans who saw their families’ livelihoods destroyed by communists, Borjas is an avowed conservative. With a bachelor’s degree from unheralded St. Peter’s College in Jersey City and graduate degrees from Columbia University, he toiled for years teaching in Queens and state universities in California before his research earned him a spot at Harvard, often considered a bastion of liberal thought.

His Mariel work has been attacked by progressives embracing immigrants and by pro-business libertarians who believe employers should be able to hire the cheapest labor possible.

Still, he’s recently drawn positive attention from some liberals re-examining their immigration stances. The most notable example is in the July-August issue of The Atlantic, where Peter Beinart, a self-described liberal professor, has written a cover story: “How The Democrats Lost Their Way on Immigration.”

“Although economists differ about the extent of the damage, immigration hurts the Americans with whom immigrants compete,” Beinart wrote. “And since more than a quarter of America’s recent immigrants lack even a high school diploma or its equivalent, immigration particularly hurts the least-educated native workers, the very people who are already struggling the most. America’s immigration system, in other words, pits two of the groups liberals care about most — the native-born poor and the immigrant poor — against each other.”

The Atlantic article cites — and supports — Borjas’ claim that economists feel huge, unfair pressure to be pro-immigration.

Beinart believes Donald Trump’s early declarations about Mexico paying for a wall pushed Democrats into more of a pro-immigration stance than they had occupied previously.

A decade ago, the left was much more concerned about the effects on native-born workers, he wrote. One example: Leftist maverick Sen. Bernie Sanders once stated that open borders was a “Koch brothers’ proposal” to lower wages and hurt American workers — an anti-immigration stance he softened during the presidential primary. Another example: Liberal New York Times columnist Paul Krugman wrote in 2006: “Immigration reduces the wages of domestic workers who compete with immigrants.”

On his blog, Borjas supports increased restrictions on immigration, but he doesn’t believe a wall — built by Mexico or anyone else — does any good. He opposes the mass deportation of undocumented immigrants as inhumane. And he advocates a tax on businesses — high-tech, agricultural and all the rest — that profit from cheaper immigrant wages, and giving that money to Americans displaced by the immigrants.

In a recent blog post, he summed up his political position: “There is something uniquely historic and extraordinary about the United States having offered hope to ‘the tired and the poor’ from other countries for so long.

“And I, for one, would like to see this continue. But the continuation of this policy requires that the number of low-skill immigrants be set in a responsible fashion. Low-skill immigration cannot be allowed to create sizable — and uncompensated — dislocations in the economic opportunities of low-skill Americans.”

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