New Research Debunks Right-Wing Media Myth That Incoming Refugees Threaten American Workers

WSJ Op-Ed Highlights Research On Positive Benefits Of Refugee Resettlement

Blog ››› ››› ALEX MORASH

Economists from the University of California, Davis published an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal debunking the popular right-wing media myth that an influx of low-skilled refugees would necessarily result in decreased wages and job opportunities for American workers.

On January 18, University of California, Davis economist Giovanni Peri and doctoral candidate Vasil Yasenov published an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal discussing their recent study on the wage and employment disruption created when a large influx of Cuban refugees arrived in South Florida in 1980. Their work, published in December 2015 by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), updated prior research on the migration and confirmed that the sudden arrival of 125,000 Cuban refugees did not correlate with decreased wages or employment activity for American workers in the local community.

Right-wing media have created many myths about immigration, but perhaps the most pervasive is the misleading claim that new immigrants take jobs away from American workers. Economists have debunked the claim many times, but it remains a prevalent talking point in many conservative outlets.

Peri and Yasenov argued that an influx of new immigrants "stimulates productivity and growth in the economy" and pointed to the experience of Cuban refugees in the 1980s as a model for what to expect from Syrian refugee arrivals today. From The Wall Street Journal (emphasis added):

A well-known episode took place after April 20, 1980, when Fidel Castro opened the port of Mariel, enabling anyone to freely leave the island. More than 125,000 Cubans fled to the U.S. until the Mariel boatlift, as it was called, ended in September. More than half of these refugees settled in Miami. Most were low-skill--which meant that the supply of workers without a high-school diploma in the city increased between 12% and 15%.

Economist David Card analyzed how the wages and employment rate of native workers in Miami changed from 1979 (before the inflow) to 1981-82 (after the inflow). His influential study, published in 1990, compared Miami with Atlanta, Houston, Los Angeles and Tampa-St. Petersburg, a control group of cities with similar demographic and labor-market characteristics during the 1970s.

The results were striking: The 1979-1981 wage and employment changes in Miami were not much different than in the other cities. The evidence, he concluded, was that a sudden increase in the supply of low-skill workers had no significant negative effect on native laborers with similar schooling levels.


Our results--released as National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper No. 21801 on Dec. 15--confirm Mr. Card's original study. There is no evidence that Miami's low-skill workers experienced wage or employment decline relative to those in our control group of cities in 1980, 1981 or 1982. We also analyzed different subgroups--males, females, Hispanics and non-Hispanics--and did not find any significant wage effect in Miami after 1979.

This result suggests that the common belief that more immigrant workers depress native workers' wages or employment is not a good representation of what happens. Earlier research by one of us has shown that native workers do not suffer the negative impact of arriving immigrants because they take different jobs. Moreover, their arrival stimulates productivity and growth in the economy.

Miami's experience after the Mariel boatlift suggests that an influx of refugees from Syria to the U.S. would have no significant economic impact on American workers.

Posted In
Economy, Jobs, Wages, & Unemployment, Immigration, Immigration Myths
The Wall Street Journal
We've changed our commenting system to Disqus.
Instructions for signing up and claiming your comment history are located here.
Updated rules for commenting are here.