One of the classic academic studies of the effects of immigration on low-skilled Americans is that of David Card, concerning the Mariel Boatlift. Card found that the sudden Cuban influx had little or no adverse work impact on native African-Americans. Lately George Borjas, one of my favorite economists, has disputed Card’s findings, only to find my UC Davis colleague Giovanni Peri disagreeing. Needless to say, Borjas has been responding to Peri. And today I was taken aback to find that another of my favorite economists, Jennifer Hunt, also disagrees with Borjas.
I have been quite open in pointing out that Peri, while very sharp and by the way very personable, generally does not cite work by those taking views opposite his — a grievous academic transgression — and is prone to contradicting his own work, as I have explained before and is also seen in the first link above. Card is highly prominent, in part because of his pro-immigration, pro-labor work, but I have seen serious indications of his bias as well.
But Borjas and Hunt are the real deal. George may have a viewpoint, but I have never seen anything other than fully professional behavior on his part. To my knowledge, no one has ever accused Jennifer of bias either.
I have not read the papers on the boatlift by any of the above, and I do not intend to, because I believe that this is a question — like many — that can’t be settled by numbers alone.
As a statistician — and all of those papers are purely statistical, nothing really drawing upon economic theory — I have always stressed to my students and my consulting clients the importance of complementing the quantitative with the qualitative. Do the numbers make sense in light of qualitative knowledge, and if not, can the discrepancy be reconciled?
What qualitative knowledge can we draw upon here? There are well-documented examples of immigrant Latinos be hired in lieu of — indeed, replacing — native blacks, such as the case of black LA janitors. There is the infamous example of Hurricane Katrina, in which African-Americans had been hired to clean up and rebuild, only to be told soon afterward that they were fired, because “The Mexicans have arrived.”
So, sorry to say this Jennifer and Giovanni, but I think it’s obvious that the arrival of the Marielitos did adversely impact local black workers. There remains the question of degree and extent of impact, and though some have described the boatlift as a “natural economic experiment,” ideal for settling the question of whether immigration harms blacks, I continue to maintain it just is not possible using just data.
But for the purpose of assessing White House adviser Stephen Miller’s claims in support of the new RAISE bill (second link above), I have to side with him. Mind you, I don’t support the bill — I don’t like points systems, as I would like to see a mix of immigrants socioeconomically, racially and so on — but there is far more to this issue than “He said, she said” academic papers.