Alex Nowrasteh

Director of Economic and Social Policy Studies, Cato Institute

Aside from screening for “criminals, [national security] threats, [and] some diseases,” libertarian policy analyst Alex Nowrasteh believes the government should create as few barriers to immigration as possible. In a 2020 interview with Ideaspace, he summarized, “My base way of viewing immigration is that everything should be allowed, unless there’s a really good reason not to allow it.”

Nowrasteh disrupts the typical left-right debate, calling for the radical expansion of legal immigration favored by the left while adhering to the pro-market, anti-intervention stance favored by the right. In Nowrasteh’s view, the term “open borders” is not a pejorative, but instead a potential policy solution that he argues would end smuggling and unscreened migration while boosting the U.S. economy. He argues that the public perception that the U.S. lacks control over its border is false, citing the 21st century’s comparatively low levels of border migration, an exorbitantly-funded border security apparatus, and a complex and restrictive legal immigration system. Nowrasteh also supports shrinking any government welfare benefits accessible to immigrants — part of his broader approval for shrinking government welfare generally. 

Studies that Nowrasteh has authored or co-authored at the Cato Institute have concluded that immigrants, both those who entered legally and illegally, are less likely than native-born Americans to commit crimes; that immigrants without a high school degree have a higher net fiscal benefit to the U.S. than native-born high school dropouts; and that immigrants consume fewer government resources in the form of welfare and benefits than do native-born Americans. 

Nowrasteh has also focused significant attention on rebutting conservative arguments in favor of reducing or banning immigration to limit the risk of foreign terrorists entering the country. In an analysis of U.S. terrorist attacks between 1975 and 2017, Nowrasteh found that the chance of an American being murdered by a foreign-born terrorist within that time frame was 1 in 3.8 million per year, a number that fluctuated depending on visa category — the chance of being murdered by a refugee terrorist, for example, was 1 in 3.86 billion annually. Emphasizing that terrorism is a “serious hazard to American life, liberty, and private property,” he nevertheless concluded that the economic benefits of immigration dwarfed the economic costs of terrorism.

Nowrasteh is a vocal public figure. He frequently appears in interviews, publishes op-eds, and spars with leading immigration reductionists online, most commonly with Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) executive director Mark Krikorian. He provides counterpoints to research from conservative think tanks like CIS, the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), NumbersUSA, and the Heritage Foundation. He even fact-checks fringe and anecdotal claims, such as the time he methodically investigated former Fox News pundit Tucker Carlson’s allegation that immigrants are prone to littering (Nowrasteh’s conclusion: they aren’t). He has said that his goal is to sway public opinion away from anti-immigration sentiment, tweeting, “We’ll never convince Krikorian, but we can convince some of his twitter followers.”


Nowrasteh’S IDEAS

  • Border Security

    Nowrasteh argues that the government does not need to expand border security and should instead expand legal immigration. He also believes expansion of border security in some instances violates the civil liberties of American citizens. In a 2016 joint op-ed with Cato Institute fellow Patrick Eddington, Nowrasteh wrote, “Every new Border Patrol tactic should be justified by a rigorous cost‐​benefit analysis to make sure taxpayer funds are spent effectively and that civil rights aren’t violated.”

  • Border Wall

    Nowrasteh has argued that walls don’t stop illegal immigration as long as there is an incentive for people to enter the country. Instead, he advocates for opening more pathways to legal immigration.

  • Detention

    Nowrasteh opposes detention for asylum-seekers and families. He has said that “at a very minimum,” detention should be replaced with Alternatives to Detention (ATD) such as case management, ankle monitoring, and case worker check-ins, arguing that such programs are “cheaper, more humanitarian” alternatives to universal detention.

  • Immigration Courts

    Nowrasteh opposed “rocket docket” immigration court hearings during the Obama administration, arguing that the speed of the proceedings denied immigrants their right to due process.

  • Undocumented Population

    Nowrasteh supports granting legal status to undocumented immigrants living and working in the country, arguing that it will solve America’s labor shortage and benefit the economy. His research has concluded that undocumented immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than the general population.

  • ICE

    Nowrasteh has proposed changing immigration violations into civil, rather than criminal, offenses, and reorganizing ICE’s Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) arm as part of its Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) arm, which specifically targets criminal and terrorist organizations. These moves, he argues, would allow ICE to target serious criminal violations rather than otherwise law-abiding undocumented people.

  • DACA

    Nowrasteh supports DACA, but argues that having a registry of undocumented young people’s names and addresses could make them vulnerable to abuse by the government.

  • Asylum

    In a study examining the risk of a refugee committing an act of terrorism on U.S. soil, one of the main fears cited by opponents of the refugee system, Nowrasteh found that “the chance of an American being murdered in a terrorist attack by a refugee is about 1 in 3.86 billion per year.” Nowrasteh believes the asylum system should be tightened by deterring people who cross at the border and rewarding people who claim asylum at ports of entry, and by eliminating any public benefits asylum seekers can access.

  • Central American Policy

    “All foreign aid to all foreign governments should be cut off,” said Nowrasteh in a 2017 tweet. He has indicated that he believes foreign aid does not work. Although he supports Biden’s humanitarian parole program for nationals of Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Haiti, he wants the program to be extended to include individuals from Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Colombia, and Ecuador.

  • Visas

    Nowrasteh argues in favor of vastly expanding legal work visas. In an interview with Ideaspace, Nowrasteh said that in an optimal system, the government would not set limits on legal immigration, but would allow visas to fluctuate freely based on the needs of the economy and individual decision-making. He opposes the use of E-Verify.

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