Alex Nowrasteh’s Procrustean Bed

Alex Nowrasteh is many things. He is the Cato Institute’s senior immigration policy analyst. He is a self-described “radical” open borders advocate. And he is Tucker Carlson’s punching bag. But most importantly, Alex Nowrasteh is Procrustes:

Procrustes boasted his inn’s bed was the most comfortable in Greece, fitting all men regardless of their height. A short man came, so Procrustes stretched him on a rack. Although dead, he fit the bed. Then a tall man came: Procrustes severed his legs with an axe. Although dead, he fit the bed.

One day Theseus stayed at the inn. But Theseus was no fool: he saw tracks entering the inn, but none leaving. That night he waited for Procrustes, who crept into his room with an axe. Theseus snatched the axe and severed Procrustes’ legs. Procrustes smiled. Although dying, he fit the bed.

Like Procrustes, Nowrasteh lives to stretch the truth and sever facts from their context, until reality fits his theoretical ideal: immigration is good and more is better. No “fact” justifying immigration can come up short, nor is any confirmatory tale too tall. For Nowrasteh, everything must justify open borders—if not, he wields his rhetorical axe to rationalize or omit the inconvenient incongruity.

Nowrasteh is at his best (read: worst) when he discusses immigration’s impact on American politics. He argues that mass immigration minimally impacts America’s political culture—if anything, immigration makes America more free.

Reality—and (ironically) his own research papers—proves Nowrasteh wrong. Immigration unquestionably changes America’s political climate because immigrants have overwhelmingly voted for Democrats and have done so for nearly a century.

Many Enter, None Leave
Most weary travelers ignored the (lack of) tracks outside Procrustes’ inn, but Theseus recognized the danger—and survived. The lesson here is to always know your opponent: how does Alex Nowresteh argue; can we trust his evidence, or should we be skeptical of his every word?

Nowrasteh is a sophist, content to hide his nonsensical arguments with pseudo-logic. For example, Nowrasteh routinely commits the appeal to authority fallacy (conflating expert opinion with fact). He writes in The Federalist how politicians should “shift towards the opinion of most economists” and support increased immigration. The opinion of “most economists” substitutes for evidence because instinctively we trust experts.

But this trust is often misplaced when dealing with complex systems—particularly the economy. The reason is most economists base their analyses on a number of (obviously) false presumptions, and macroeconomic events unfold too slowly for economists to receive adequate feedback. Unlike chefs, whose performance is calibrated by years of generous tips and disgruntled diners, economists rarely test their skill. This makes them incompetent. In fact, research conducted by psychologist Philip Tetlock shows that experts—including economists, financial gurus, and political specialists—actually perform worse than chance when predicting economic trends.

Who cares what economists think. What do the data say?

On top of this, Nowrasteh’s statement that “most” economists support increased immigration is misleading. The poll he cites from 2006 shows that only 53 percent of economists believe immigration levels are too low—17 percent think they’re too high, while 30 percent are neutral. Further, the poll does not differentiate between skilled workers and non-economic migrants (asylum-seekers, family members, diversity visa lottery winners). How would reframing the question alter the results?

Another of Nowrasteh’s favorite fallacies is the appeal to the masses: substituting popularity for correctness. In his blog item, “The Rising Popularity of Increasing Immigration,” Nowrasteh asks: “if the public is increasingly pro-immigration, why is the GOP so opposed to immigration?” He then justifies his radical open borders agenda with flimsy public opinion data. This is not compelling—the public used to enjoy burning witches, but does this justify Salem’s horrors?

Popular opinion is an imperfect proxy for correctness.

And in typical Nowrasteh fashion, he’s wrong in any event: most Americans oppose mass immigration. A Harvard-Harris poll finds that 81 percent of Americans want to reduce annual immigration rates to less than 1 million people, while just 9 percent of Americans want to increase immigration to more than 1.5 million. Interestingly, this preference cut across racial and political lines: the plurality of whites, Hispanics, blacks, Republicans, and Democrats support cutting immigration to below 250,000.

Harvard’s findings are consistent with research from Pulse Opinion, which finds that voters in “swing states” favor comprehensive immigration reform by a 3-1 margin. Closed—not open—borders is the winning ticket. How Nowrasteh decapitates this fact to fit this theory is a mystery.

Nowrasteh is also a hypocrite. His vitriolic tweets often accuse others of justifying their position based on public opinion data:


Procrustes’ Axe
Nowrasteh’s most important rhetorical trick is to shift the burden. That is, he makes claims requiring justification and demands that his opponent justify his opposite conclusions. In a debate on open borders hosted by the (profoundly unreasonable) Reason Magazine, Nowrasteh contends:

American notions of liberty demand a presumption in favor of . . . the right of people to voluntarily move across borders . . . the burden is upon those who oppose such a right to show why it should be restricted.

Nowrasteh makes the radical claim that America should dissolve its border, and then has the gall to say the burden is on his opponent to show why this is bad. That’s not how logic works. The burden rests on the interlocutor proposing the change to show why it is beneficial. Doing otherwise violates the precautionary principle, which is deeply rooted in both our biology and empirical evidence.

Biological evolution is largely governed by one question: approach or avoid? Approaching something novel may yield a lucrative new food source or reproductive partner, but it might also kill you. In fact, death, maiming, or disease is usually the more likely outcome. For this reason, human populations evolved a genetic predisposition for neophobia (risk aversion) while only a small minority of humanity carries the explorer gene, which predisposes one for novelty-seeking behavior.

Logic also favors the status quo. Consider the Lindy Effect, which implies that what survives is likely to continue surviving because of its proven utility. Meanwhile, most of what is new doesn’t last very long—time separates the weak from the strong. This explains why most new ideas don’t last, while classics have sticking-power. Likewise, it explains why many things that appear maladaptive, like tariffs, are the historical norm.

Edmund Burke adumbrated this in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, arguing that the ancien régime’s institutions, though dysfunctional, were nevertheless valuable in unexpected ways. The subsequent collapse of France attests to that fact. The same is true of the fall of Russia’s czars—the Soviet Union could never hope to approximate the time-tested successes of czarism, no matter how “rational” it purported to be. There is wisdom in tradition.

This brings me to America: borders are the norm. Alex Nowrasteh wants to dissolve them. Ergo, the burden must rest with him to prove his point—not on his opponents.

Interestingly, Nowrasteh seems to be aware of this fallacy, and attempts to preclude it by arguing that open borders is the historical norm. In a 2012 piece for the Huffington Post, Nowrasteh writes:

. . . America’s first immigration and naturalization law, the Naturalization Act of 1790. . . had zero restrictions on immigration. You read that right, the first immigration law passed in the United States, by the Founders themselves, supported open immigration.

The Naturalization Act created few requirements for naturalization. Eligible persons had to reside here for two years, have a good moral character (that is, not be a criminal), and be a free white person. That last provision shamefully excluded indentured servants, slaves, and former slaves. But there were no restrictions on who could come here and work for the American dream.

Confused? #MeToo.

On the one hand, Nowrasteh claims that the Founding Fathers supported “open immigration” and imposed “zero restrictions on immigration.” In literally the next paragraph, Nowrasteh admits that the Founding Fathers excluded all people of color, all people of dubious moral character—not just criminals, but ostensibly homosexuals, Orthodox Christians, Jews, and Muslims—and all slaves and indentured servants. Whether or not this was vigorously applied is a different question, but that was the intention.

In sum, the Naturalization Act of 1790 excluded almost everyone on earth. Nowrasteh’s reasoning is Procrustean: history doesn’t comport with the theory, therefore history must change.

I, Theseus
Nowrasteh’s argument for immigration rests on two pillars: mass immigration is good for the economy and immigration is politically benign—if anything, it will make America freer. As evidence, he cites two research papers showing that mass immigration to Jordan and Israel catalyzed liberal reforms. Having already addressed the question of immigration and economic growth, I turn to the issue of immigration and politics.

To begin with, Nowrasteh’s papers are irrelevant.

Regarding Jordan, Nowrasteh found that the wave of 300,000 Kuwaiti immigrants following the Gulf War made Jordan more prosperous and liberal. Apparently, this “proves” that increased immigration will likewise make America more prosperous and liberal. But what Nowrasteh neglects to mention is that the Kuwaiti refugees shared with Jordan a common ethnicity, language, religion, and many were very rich—Kuwait is one of the Arab world’s wealthiest, and most well-educated and westernized societies.

It is patently absurd to claim that Jordan’s situation in any way parallels the American experience, in which some 60 million polyglot legal and illegal immigrants deluged the nation in the last 50 years. My colleague Pedro Gonzalez writes of the wave of Mexican immigrants:

Lawful Mexican immigrants have the lowest naturalization rates of any group, at 42 percent. According to the Pew Research Center, as of 2015, the naturalization rate among eligible immigrants from Mexico was similar to those from Honduras (43 percent) and Guatemala (44 percent). In a survey administered by Pew, 35 percent of Mexican immigrants cited “[a] lack of English proficiency” as the main reason that they have not naturalized. The second most common reason? “Have not tried yet or not interested,” so say 31 percent of all Mexicans.

Nowrasteh is either a fool or a charlatan for drawing this (obviously) false equivalence.

When it comes to Israel, Nowrasteh notes that because the Jewish state “allows for unrestricted immigration for world-wide Jews,” the population grew by 20 percent in the 1990s after the USSR collapsed. He finds that “these immigrants did not bring social capital that eroded the quality of Israel’s institutional environment. We find that economic institutions improved substantially over the decade.” Basically, Israel has something akin to “open borders” and immigration made Israel more liberal. Logically, Nowrasteh concludes that opening America’s border would have a similar effect.


To begin with, Soviet Jews were universally literate and, generally speaking, highly educated—this is not the case for the half of America’s immigrants who arrive via chain migration, as refugees, or come here illegally. Likewise, the immigrants to Israel shared a common culture, history, ethnicity, and often language (Hebrew or Yiddish). And it goes without mentioning that holding up Israel as an example as a state with (limited) open borders is duplicitous. Israel restricts immigration from 99.8 percent of the world’s population—a level far beyond even America’s 1790 Naturalization Act.

Not only is Nowrasteh’s evidence irrelevant, but his own research proves him wrong, and shows that immigration changes America’s political culture because immigrants vote overwhelmingly for Democratic Party candidates and support socialist policies.

Consider the following data from his paper, “Immigrants Assimilate into the Political Mainstream.” Figure 1, which shows that 50 percent of all immigrants lean Democrat, compared to just 18 percent who lean Republican—a much starker divide than we see among native born citizens. Furthermore, Figure 3 shows that these political preferences persist for at least four generations—immigrants’ decedents are more than twice as likely to be “strong Democrats” as “strong Republicans” nearly a century after arriving.

This isn’t really surprising: Boston was flooded with Irishmen during that nation’s emigration epoch. The Irish voted Democrat and supported labor unions 150 years ago, and they still do today. Even the liberal psychology professor Jonathan Haidt notes that political preferences are highly heritable in his book The Righteous Mind. Politics, like many bad habits, runs in the family.

The data from Figure 9 shows that immigrants are twice as likely as natives to believe the “government [should] do more” not less. Tying into this is Figure 18, which shows that immigrants are over 50 percent more likely than native-born citizens to believe the government’s job should be to “reduce income differences” between citizens (31 versus 20 percent), and half as likely to say that no action should be taken (7 versus 14 percent). Also interesting are the data from Figure 22, which shows that 34 percent of new immigrants think the government should provide assistance to the poor, versus just 16 percent for natives.

I could go on, but you get the point: Nowrasteh’s own research shows that immigrants support expansive government. Nowrasteh also notes in the paper that “many immigrants that [sic] self-identify as Republicans or Independents end up voting for Democratic candidates” since the Democrats are the stronger pro-immigration option. That is, most immigrants are actually single-issue voters: they vote for more immigration.

This raises the question: what the hell is Nowrasteh talking about when he says, “every concern about immigrants . . . overturning our culture and institutions . . . [has] turned out to be wrong.” He should read what he writes.

The Return to Athens
Alex Nowrasteh proves Alex Nowrasteh wrong: immigration changes America’s political culture and grows the government. This is because immigrants vote overwhelmingly in favor of the Democrats, who work feverishly to raise taxes and curtail our civil liberties.

Consider that the last Democratic president elected by native-born Americans was Lyndon B. Johnson back in 1964 (excluding the Ross Perot anomaly of 1992). Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton (second term), and Barack Obama won only because immigrants tipped the electoral scales in their favor.

Further, it doesn’t take very many immigrants to tip the scales in a tight race. Remember, President Trump won by just 112,911 votes in Florida and 10,704 in Michigan—both states which could conceivably alter the course of the 2020 election. These are razor-thin margins, and immigration is erasing them.

A net 147,000 immigrants settle in Florida every year. Meanwhile, some 22,919 people immigrate to Michigan annually. If these people vote in line with the national average (which has held steady for decades), then just one or two years of immigration is enough to turn those states blue by 2020. This isn’t an abstract theory. This is reality.

Nowrasteh made his bed and expects America to lie in it. Perhaps we will, but I doubt it. After all, America is Theseus.

Photo Credit: Wikicommons

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