Immigration

Why the Mariel boatlift has become a Trump talking point on immigration

Senior Advisor to the President for Policy Stephen Miller talks to reporters about President Donald Trump's support for creating a 'merit-based immigration system' in the James Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House August 2, 2017 in Washington, DC. Earlier in the day President Donald Trump signed bipartisan legislation into law placing new sanctions on Russia and reducing his ability to lift the sanctions on Moscow.
Senior Advisor to the President for Policy Stephen Miller talks to reporters about President Donald Trump's support for creating a 'merit-based immigration system' in the James Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House August 2, 2017 in Washington, DC. Earlier in the day President Donald Trump signed bipartisan legislation into law placing new sanctions on Russia and reducing his ability to lift the sanctions on Moscow. Getty Images

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.

IMG_mariel.jpg_2_1_FKA2U6VP_L277722781
The Dr. Daniels, loaded with 600 to 700 Cuban refugees, pulls into the docks at Key West; one refugee aboard holds up a sign in Spanish that says "Down With Castro." Ran with story "U.S. to help with refugees" that leads with "President Carter declared a state of emergency in those parts of Florida 'severely affected' by the wave of Cuban refugees arriving in the Mariel-to-Key West sealift." Keith Graham Miami Herald File

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.

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