Cato On Mariel

The Cato Institute’s Alex Nowrasteh posted a very interesting piece that reproduces and expands the findings in my Mariel paper. Although the title, “The Mariel Boatlift Raised the Wages of Low-Skilled Miamians,” is very misleading (making it a good example of Cato publicists gone wild), I actually liked the essay and recommend it to anyone interested in the subject.

My paper showed that the wage of high-school dropouts fell significantly after Mariel, but recovered by 1990. Here’s the graph that goes with that conclusion (where the shaded area indicates the margin of error):


In early drafts of my Mariel paper, as well as in We Wanted Workers (Figure 7.5 on p. 148), I documented that the wage drop was not experienced by high school graduates, the group of workers on the next rung up the skill distribution. In contrast to the dropouts, high school graduates actually saw their wages rise. Here’s the graph from my book:


A few months ago, Joan Monras and I followed up on this insight to document a pattern common to many refugee supply shocks: refugees have harmful wage/employment effects on the workers that they most resemble, but beneficial effects on the workers that are different.

Nowrasteh’s conclusion that “low-skilled Miamians” gained comes about because he pools the two groups of workers (high school dropouts and high school graduates) into a large “low-skilled” workforce, and he shows that the wage of the average worker in this group increased as a result of Mariel. He concludes: “The Marielitos redistributed wages from dropouts to workers with only a high school degree with a net positive effect on all low-skill workers.”

The exercise illustrates two very important points that Nowrasteh does not emphasize. First, it shows just how easy it is to hide the adverse wage impact of immigration by redefining skill groups. This is a trick that, unfortunately, is used much too often to “prove” that immigration is good for everyone. As I wrote in We Wanted Workers (p. 196): “The more one aggregates skill groups, the more likely one hides away the specific group of affected workers–making it harder to document whether immigration made anyone worse off. The more laser-focused the group of native workers examined, the easier it is to detect that immigration affected the targeted group.”

Second, Nowrasteh (perhaps unwittingly) blows up the cornerstone underlying the Card-Peri argument that immigration has not made low-skill Americans worse off. That cornerstone is the assumption that high school dropouts and high school graduates are productive clones (or “perfect substitutes”). That assumption is what gives the researcher “permission” to pool those two groups. Because there are many fewer dropouts, the wage trend will essentially reflect whatever happened to the wage of high school graduates.

Nowrasteh’s documentation that Mariel had very different effects on high school dropouts and high school graduates flatly contradicts the assumption that the two groups are productive clones. If the two groups were clones, they should have reacted in exactly the same way to Mariel. But they didn’t. Instead, they are complements, implying that the two groups should be studied separately. Those who buy into the Card-Peri argument need to go back to the drawing board if they want to salvage the conclusion that immigration didn’t really harm the least skilled Americans.

New Paper on Refugees

Joan Monras and I have been working on a paper that presents a comprehensive documentation of the labor market consequences of refugee supply shocks; the working paper version is here. We examine four episodes:

  1. The Mariel supply shock in 1980.
  2. The Soviet émigrés who moved to Israel in the early 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union
  3. The influx of French repatriates and Algerian nationals into France at the end of the Algerian War of Independence in 1962.
  4. The flow of refugees into several European countries from the many conflicts that made up the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s.

The paper differs in two key ways from what’s been done before. First, rather than “pick and choose” a different methodological approach to examine each of the four shocks, we use the same regression model, derived from economic theory, to measure the labor market impact. Second, we estimate not only the “own effect” of the refugees on competing natives, but also the “cross effects” of the refugees on complementary natives. So, for example, existing studies of the impact of the very low-skill Marielitos look at what happened to the earnings of native high school dropouts. But what about the earnings of more skilled Miamians? Similarly, existing studies of the impact of the very high-skill Soviet émigrés in Israel look at what happened to the earnings of Israeli college graduates. But what about the earnings of lower-skilled Israelis?

Here’s what we find:

The evidence reveals a common thread that confirms key insights of the canonical model of a competitive labor market: Exogenous supply shocks adversely affect the labor market opportunities of competing natives in the receiving countries, and often have a favorable impact on complementary workers. In short, refugee flows can have large distributional consequences.

We will be presenting the paper in Florence at the 64th Panel Meeting of Economic Policy in October 2016.


The Economist on Mariel

The Economist just published a very nice writeup of my Mariel paper.The article captures the essence of the paper very nicely. Over 60 percent of the Marielitos were high school dropouts. It seems more than obvious today that if we want to find out what Mariel did, perhaps we should look at what happened to the wage of similarly educated workers who were living in Miami at the time. Remarkably, that had not been done until I wrote my Mariel reappraisal. As The Economist puts it: “Mr Borjas’s paper shows that empirical results may depend on exactly where researchers look.”

There is a lot of wisdom in those words. Just keep looking in all the wrong places, and one will never discover what the impact of immigration really is. For example, one empirical trick that is often used to “hide” the impact is to define the population of low-skill workers as the aggregate of high school graduates and high school dropouts (click here for a technical discussion, and pages 14-17 here for an English translation). Because there are tens of millions of high school graduates, the impact of immigration on the smaller group of the least skilled workers gets diluted. And it’s usually too late, only after the inevitable political reaction occurs, that we find out that some people were really harmed.

Here’s a quick link to a description of my Mariel analysis, to the paper itself, and to the data.

Odds and Ends on Mariel

Warning: Very geeky post.

Since I posted the final version of my Mariel paper earlier this week, I have heard from a number of people asking for all kinds of details about the paper. One of the nice things about having this blog is that I can quickly address these reactions/questions/doubts without having to resort to writing yet another paper. So here are some responses for those who are really into the minutiae of this stuff.

Continue reading “Odds and Ends on Mariel”

Final Version of Mariel Study

My Mariel paper has now gone through the peer review process and it’s officially forthcoming at the Industrial and Labor Relations Review (the same journal that published Card’s original Mariel paper a quarter-century ago).


Here is a nice-looking graph that tells the whole story. The graph shows the 3-year moving average of the wage of male, non-Hispanic high school dropouts in and outside Miami between 1972 and 2002; the shaded area is a 95% confidence interval (i.e., the margin of error). It is obvious that something happened in Miami after 1980, the year of Mariel. It is also obvious that something happened in Miami after 1995, when coincidentally there was another large influx of Cuban refugees. All the data-fudging and wishful thinking in the world cannot change those simple facts. As I say in the paper, “The wage of high school dropouts in the Miami labor market fell significantly after the Mariel supply shock. Any attempt at rationalizing this fact as due to something other than the Marielitos will need to specify precisely what those other factors were.”

Continue reading “Final Version of Mariel Study”

Presenting the Mariel Paper

I’ve been traveling almost nonstop for the past 6 weeks (three times to Europe, twice to New York City, once to Washington, DC). On one of those trips, I presented my Mariel paper in the Workshop on Migration at the Barcelona GSE Summer Forum. Barcelona happens to be one of my favorite cities (it’s also sort of revisiting my roots, as I have Catalan ancestry). As you can tell from the discussion, this is a fun paper to give.

An Empirical Exercise: Mariel

The immigration debate is very contentious, with “factual” claims coming from every which way. Not surprisingly, I often hear people say that “you can’t believe anything anymore because you don’t really know what the guy/gal did to reach that result.” And those suspicions are perfectly justified.

I’ve been teaching for a long time, but it wasn’t until last semester that I discovered how useful it was to show students how research gets done in real time. I first tried it out with my Mariel paper, where I could go from the raw CPS data to this striking graph showing the negative effect of the Marielitos in a few minutes with a bare minimum of statistical manipulations.

Mariel Interactive Exercise

The top (blue) line gives a 3-year moving average of the weekly wage of working men outside Miami; the bottom (red) line gives the corresponding trend in Miami. I’ve now made this by-the-numbers exposition a standard part of my show whenever I present the Mariel paper at a seminar. It is far more convincing than my claiming: “This is what the data look like. Trust me!”

Some professors have told me that they would like to do something like this in their own classes. And it occurred to me that readers of this blog, many of whom have probably never seen how this type of data analysis is done, would be interested in taking a short video tour that illustrates how you can start from the raw data (publicly available at the IPUMS website); select the sample of low-skill, non-Hispanic men aged 25-59; calculate the average weekly wage of those workers in Miami and elsewhere; and, presto, end up with the graph above, documenting that something did indeed happen in Miami after 1980. Enjoy!

Continue reading “An Empirical Exercise: Mariel”