Pressed by a New York Times reporter yesterday for evidence that immigration hurts American workers, White House senior adviser Stephen Miller said: “I think the most recent study I would point to is the study from George Borjas that he just did about the Mariel Boatlift.” 

The flight of up to 125,000 people from the Cuban port of Mariel to Florida between 15 April and 31 October 1980 was a milestone in the history of Cuban migration to the US. In May 1980 alone over 86,000 arrived in the US. It was chaotic. They came in small groups – 1700 boats were used in the boatlift. In Miami the authorities were overwhelmed. The Carter administration in its final months struggled to improvise a response. Meanwhile the refugees, of whom perhaps 30-40 percent were black or mulatto struggled to find places for themselves in a city suffused with a discourse of crisis. Rumors that the boatlift included thousands of inmates of Cuban prisons and mental hospitals caused a widespread “moral panic”. There was a much-discussed group of gay or queer Cubans from Mariel, in part because of the high profile of Mariel migrants like Reinaldo Arenas. Contemporary news accounts reported that some 20,000 gay Cubans had entered the U.S. via the boatlift. A more reasonable estimate would put the figure in the 1000-2000 range. After shuffling through improvised accommodation in and around Miami, those arrivals who had no immediate family sponsor were shipped off to Fort Eglin Air Force Base in the Florida Panhandle; Fort Chaffee, Arkansas; Fort Indiantown Gap, PA; and Fort McCoy, WI from where they struggled to make a life for themselves in the US.

In Arkansas the arrivals were fiercely resisted by locals and their governor, a young Bill Clinton. The ensuing riot is vividly described by the Washington Post:

“The scene would later remind one witness of the Vietnam War. “Plumes of smoke billowed high into the illuminated night sky from barracks that had been set afire,” David Maraniss wrote in The Washington Post. “Flames still flickered from a charred guardhouse. Whoops and fierce cries of defiance echoed across the camp. Shotgun-toting civilians in pickup trucks loomed a mile or so beyond the gate. The mood was tense and chaotic. But this wasn’t Vietnam — or Iraq in the wake of an Islamic State attack. This was Fort Chaffee, a military installation in Arkansas, on June 1, 1980, when refugees from Fidel Castro’s Cuba rioted. The refugees had been sent there at the behest of President Jimmy Carter over the vociferous objections of an Arkansas governor with quite a political future: Bill Clinton. “The White House message seemed to be: ‘Don’t complain, just handle the mess we gave you,’” former Arkansas first lady — and possible future president — Hillary Clinton wrote in her memoir “Living History.” “Bill had done just that, but there was a big political price to pay for supporting his President.”””

The option preferred by the Clintons was to screen the Cubans on an aircraft carrier and to deport the unwanted back to the US base of Guantanamo. Carter pressed on, leading Clinton to warn him that he was struggling to prevent “a bloodbath that would make the Little Rock Central High crisis look like a Sunday afternoon picnic.” He feared that he did not have the police resources necessary to prevent murderous clashes between protesting Cubans and heavily armed Arkansas locals. According to Clinton “There had been a run on handguns and rifles in every gun store within fifty miles of Chaffee.”

Not surprisingly many of the Cuban arrivals preferred to take their chances living rough on the streets of Miami. In the end approximately half the Mariel arrivals managed to establish themselves permanently in the city.

Violence or the threat of violence haunts the entire episode. The boatlift entered urban legend by way of Scarface (1983), Brian de Palma and Al Pacino’s ultra bloody portrayal of the Miami drug wars. The film’s opening sequence is set in a recreation of “Freedom Town”, an improvised tent city settlement put up under a Miami highway overpass, which erupted in riots in the fall of 1980. In fact the Miami Tourist Board was so sensitive about the reputational damage from the refugee crisis that Scarface had to be filmed largely in LA.

At a conference at the University of Michigan I recently had the pleasure of attending, the politics of “policing the (Mariel) crisis” were powerfully evoked by the fascinating and precise paper by Alexander Stephens (U-M LSA History) on the interaction between federal agencies and the local state in handling the crisis.

As Stephens writes: “In her landmark study, historian Mae Ngai argues that the twentieth-century U.S. regime of immigration restriction produced the “illegal alien” as a “new legal and political subject”—a subject whose “inclusion within the nation was simultaneously a social reality and a legal impossibility.” Ngai’s work has established an indispensable framework for the study of immigration policy by tracing the countervailing forces of inclusion and exclusion that structure immigration law. Although she recognizes that the enforcement of such statutes generally takes place far from Congress and Washington, her study focuses on federal policy to reveal how it constructs the social and legal landscape migrants encounter before, during, and after their entry into the United States. What I want to do today is reflect on how the subtle topography of that landscape—the sites where policy is felt most acutely by individual people—has been shaped profoundly by local policy and the discretionary authority afforded to law enforcement agents.”

As Stephens shows, after an initial wave of sympathy, the attitude towards the Marielitos amongst Miami’s Cuban population rapidly soured. Some in the established Cuban population in Miami took to referring to them disdainfully as “Castro’s animals”. Thirty-five years later the normalization of relations with Cuba under President Obama provided the New York Times with an occasion to reheat the old rhetoric of criminality. Apparently, as relations with Cuba began to normalize and the climate on immigration policy darkened in America, hundreds of the arrivals of 1980 who fell foul of the law now face deportation back to Cuba.

But it was not the politics of crime that led Stephen Miller to invoke Mariel in his exchange with the Times. It was economics.  Mariel has a double life. It is on the one hand an emblem of social and political crisis in Miami in the 1980s. But at the same time and in rather contradictory ways it also serves economists as a crucial field for studying the labour market impact of mass migration.

What has lured economists onto this fraught terrain is not the temptation of scoring a mention from a Trump spokesperson. What makes the Mariel Boatlift irresistible is a question of methodology. Economists don’t like complex entangled histories. It is hard to cleanly identify causation in complex social settings. So their gold standard are so-called “natural experiments” – both terms carry heavy weight – by which they mean moments when out of complex and entangled social reality emerge events or interactions that seem truly exogenous and random and thus allow the clear identification of what is cause and what is effect.

Generally in studies of labour markets and immigration such moments are not easy to find. Judging the impact of the large migrant flows from Mexico on US labour markets is difficult because those migrant flows are themselves heavily influenced by the level of unemployment in the US. By contrast, Castro’s decision in early 1980 to open the Mariel port to emigration was exogenous. We do not need to worry that our assessment of the impact of the Cuban migrants on the Miami labour market will be muddied by the fact that the Cubans chose to migrate to a labour market that was particularly well-suited to receiving them. The inflow of migrants from Cuba and Haiti raised Miami’s workforce by 7-8 percent in a matter of months over the spring and summer of 1980. Such an increase in the supply of labour ought to “show up” in increased pressure on wages, perhaps particularly at the bottom end of the labour market. The hope, of course, is that once we have cleanly identified mass migration’s impact on wages and employment in Miami in 1980 we can transfer those insights to other settings where the chain of cause and effect is more tangled.

Source: Card (1990)

So what did the “Mariel experiment” show? George Borjas is a well-known and reputable labour economist who teaches at Harvard’s Kennedy school. In 2015 he attracted considerable controversy when in a paper published by the NBER he claimed to have overturned one of the most influential results in immigration economics.

In 1990 Berkeley labour economist David Card had investigated Mariel and found, surprisingly, that there was no negative impact on local wages. Indeed, in the wake of the shock the prolonged downward trend in wages in Miami since the 1970s was interrupted. Wages stabilized or slowed their slide above the trend they had previously been on.

Borjas set out to revise Card’s conclusion by tightening the focus on those groups that were most vulnerable to substitution – those with less than high school education. For that group Borjas claimed to have found a substantial negative effect.

The result was a controversy that attracted attention across the entire world of wonk. There were pieces in the Economist, reports in the WSJ and mentions on the FT’s blog, Alphaville. It was this that drew the flies. Stephen Miller was not the only member of the Trump administration to cite Borjas’s work. In Congressional hearings Geoff Sessions also referred to his work.

I do not in this blog post want to take a position on the wider implications of Borjas’s work. I actually find the priority he places on examining the distributional impacts of US public policy and his skepticism towards some of the panglossian narratives of American liberalism bracing and productive. The transformation of America’s workforce since the 1960s has been dramatic. It contrasts sharply with the experience in Europe over that period. In the first wave of globalization in which there was migration on a similar scale, we have robust evidence for distributional impacts on both ends of the flow. At the very least one would expect such flows to exert considerable distributional pressure within the migrant workforce as each new wave of arrivals displaces the next. Certainly we should be on guard against the complacency that Borjas skewers. It would be more comfortable, no doubt, if he were wrong. But these are questions for another time.

In this blog I want to focus on Mariel and the way it sits in criminalistics and economic discourse. In the hands of Trump’s spokespeople, it serves once more to enforce a double bind. If immigrants work they displace workers. If immigrants don’t work they are welfare scroungers or criminals. On Card’s reading of the labour market impact of Mariel that double bind collapses. There is no negative distributional effect from the new arrivals. What struck me reading Stephens paper was not just the construction of the double bind at the level of anti-immigrant discourse. What I was struck by was the common undergirding of both the criminalization of the refugees and the analysis of labour economists by structures of state power and surveillance.

The paper by Stephens was remarkable in part because it traces so meticulously the way a large problem, a problem involving 125,000 people, the population of a small town, was broken down stage by stage into one of the policing of a few hundred folks who in one way or another did not fit in, did not get jobs, stay out of trouble, or settle down. Driven by the moral panics surrounding the boatlift, the administrative machinery ground on, producing a scaling of a thousand to one: 125,000 in the boatlift, 150 in the final round ups in Miami area over the winter of 1980-1981 that aimed to strip homeless Marielitos of their immigration parole. What policing produced were a few hundred cases of unusual violence or dysfunction, so well documented that even 35 years later they are ready for the New York Times to regurgitate as emblems of the “Marelito crisis”. The journos were able to track down a convicted murderer who now, after serving his time, faces deportation. In the process what disappears from view are the 99.9 % of the Mariel migrants who actually were absorbed into and contributed to the social networks, family and work life of Miami and wider America. Not, of course, that those people lacked individuality or purpose, just that their eigen-sinn does not register within the system of criminalized registration and discipline.

What is surprising is that if you dig into the technical arguments amongst the economists you find yourself following a logic that is similarly capillary. The work of Card and Borjas is used to make general pronouncements about immigration policy, affecting tens of millions of people. But what do their rival results rest on? Forensic work by Michael Clemens traces the econometric assessment of the Mariel refugee movement back to their database in labour market surveys conducted in Miami in the 1970s and 1980s. In particular the argument revolves around the returns for Miami from the March Supplement to the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey, or CPS. Within those statistical compilations, the original finding by Card was based on returns taken from a population of c. 1200 of whom 185 were low-skilled workers with high school education or less.

The Borjas’s result hailed by the Trump administration was derived by looking more precisely not just at those with less than high school education, but those who were male, non-Hispanic and of prime age only. Hispanics were excluded to avoid counting Marielitos in the labour force, which would subvert the neat distinction between cause and effect.

As Borjas shows this more carefully selected group saw a sharp decline in wages. But what Clemens work reveals is that the total number of respondents who fit Borjas’s more restrictive definition is 17. So, claims about America’s immigration policy involving tens of millions of people, depend on the answers given to a survey in Miami in 1980 by 17 non-Hispanic men of prime age with less than high school education. Borjas restrictive definition excludes 91 percent of all low-skilled workers in Miami at the time, whose wages, as Card showed, increased relative to trend in the wake of Mariel.

Furthermore, it begs the question. Who were the non-Hispanic poorly educated men on whom Borjas’s finding rests? In the CPS they remain name and voiceless. But one thing about them is clear: they were overwhelmingly black. In 1980 as a result of political protests about bias the Census Bureau expanded its coverage to include a larger representation of low-skill black male workers. Not only were black workers lower paid, but the survey did not distinguish between different types of black respondent. In Miami the figures for the black workforce included exceptionally low skilled and poorly paid Haitian arrivals. Furthermore, this double shift in the share of the black population in the sample and the composition of the black population to include Haitians, systematically skews Borjas’s sample of wages for low-skilled non-Hispanic workers precisely at the moment of the Mariel arrivals. To neutralize that effect, one might attempt to focus the analysis only on white low-skilled workers. But at that point the limitations of the survey intrude again. The number of white, male, prime age workers with less than high school education interviewed by the Census Bureau in Miami in 1980 was four.

Mariel is thus constructed by two Jeux d’échelle. On the one hand we have the mechanisms and procedures of discipline, control and surveillance applied to the individual refugees, which identified individuals and assembled them into social categories and made them disposable in a scandalized tabloid discourse of moral panic. The Birmingham School classic Policing the Crisis (1978) comes to mind.

At one and the same time the Mariel of the economists is constructed around labour force data and economic theories that are designed to enable statistical logic to be brought to bear. But due to the fixation on the identification of causation they require Mariel to be torn out of its context and figured as a “natural experiment” a truly “exogenous event”. Furthermore, when examined in detail the identification of the effects that economists are fixated on, requires a treatment of data that turns out to be a strange form of anecdotage. It involves the calculation of confidence intervals for samples of barely more than a handful of respondents. But that does not prevent those results from being smoothly reinserted into the politics of the “bad hombre”.

On the one flank widely circulating rhetorics of criminality and social control are generated out of an apparatus of individualized surveillance and control – the NYT reporters tracking down the paroled Marielito murderer laying low decades later in Illinois. On the other hand we have an apparatus of social scientific expertise notionally committed to making real a vision of statistical aggregation, generative of generalizable knowledge, that in fact comes to rely on family-sized samples of tiny numbers of individuals.

Another common feature of both forms of power/knowledge, however, is that they leave systematic traces. As the work of Alexander Stephens and Michael Clemens so forcefully demonstrates, those traces allow for historical reconstruction and critique. Even if those critiques do not command the attention of high office, they illustrate once more what “applied history” might mean and how it might be brought to bear beyond the realms to which that term is presently being attached.

With thanks to Alexander Stephens for a great paper and comments on the blog. Quote by permission.