Alex Nowrasteh of the CATO Institute joined the Rumi Forum on April 11th, 2017 for a discussion on refugee and immigration policy.


“If I had a bowl of skittles and I told you just three would kill you. Would you take a handful?” (Donald Trump Jr.) Alex Nowrasteh of the CATO Institute deconstructed the rudimentary representation of Syrian refugees seen in Donald Trump Jr.’s tweet. (Figure 1) As an expert economist, Nowrasteh advised defining key concepts before approaching the complex issue of immigration reform.

Risk, according to Nowrasteh, is the danger or chance of something happening; in this case, a terrorist executing an attack on American soil under the guise of a refugee. Risk is not binary; therefore, we must imagine the probability of a terrorist attack on a spectrum ranging between two extremes: there are no terrorists among the refugee population and vice versa. In addition, every action and inaction inherently includes a certain amount of risk. Put simply, although there is overwhelming evidence that looking at bright screens before sleep decreases the quality of your rest, we still find ourselves cruising through Facebook at midnight. Our job, as pseudo-economists, Nowrasteh states is to analyze the risks of refugee immigration; and compare the costs of our actions and inactions to the benefits. This task includes 3 major steps: 1. Calculating risk, 2. Contextualizing refugee immigration in international communities, and 3. Comparing the costs and benefits of refugee immigration.

Nowrasteh relies on data collected throughout his extensive research on the economic repercussions of immigration reform. According to Nowrasteh, between 1975 and 2015, the number of foreign-born terrorists reached 154. The number of casualties, as a result of terrorist actions, totaled 3,024; however, 98.6% of these casualties were attributed to 9/11. Another important aspect of calculating risk is condensing the types of visas foreign terrorists used to enter the United States. According to Nowrasteh, 20 terrorists were admitted through refugee visas which led to 3 deaths (all within the 1970s). If you compare the number of deaths from murders in the U.S., you are 255,914 times more likely to be killed than be a casualty of a terrorist attack. Not only are these numbers staggering, but they do not stop there. The specific narrative of Syrian Refugees paints a clear picture. Nowrasteh reports there have been 20,437 Syrian Refugees who have been accepted into the United States. Of the 20,437, none of them have been convicted of a terrorist attack.

The benignant trend of Syrian Refugees extends beyond the United States, and into international communities. In comparison, Turkey has accepted 2.7 million refugees and has experienced minimal repercussions. Nowrasteh concedes that there are unseen explanations which can contextualize these numbers. For instance, terrorist attacks have existed much longer than the Syrian Refugee crisis. This means that Syrian Refugees may, in the future, include more terrorists; however, this is a hypothetical situation and has no basis in historical fact.

The last step in dispelling xenophobic depictions of the Syrian Refugee crisis is comparing the costs and benefits of U.S. actions and inactions. Nowrasteh reports that the Department of Homeland Security estimates each statistical life saved costs the U.S. Government $6.5 million dollars. That number is doubled for terrorist attacks due to the severity of violence seen on the occurrence of such events. During the 41-year time period Nowrasteh is analyzing, the U.S. economy lost $2.3 billion dollars as a result of terrorist attacks. On the other hand, there are many benefits to allowing immigrants into our borders. After compiling data collected from experts at Harvard, Texas Tech, and other organizations, the U.S. economy would see a net gain of $226.7-$420.7 billion dollars from sustaining our open borders. According to Nowrasteh, if we applied Donald Trump’s immigration plan, it would take 2,333 to 15,267 deaths a year from terrorist attacks to justify closing our borders.

Nowrasteh outlined specific aspects of immigration reform economists take into consideration. After calculating the risk, reward, and historical trends of immigration reform, the evidence shows that the insufficient risks do not compare to the copious benefits of more open borders.



Alex Nowrasteh is an immigration policy analyst at the Cato Institute’s Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity. His popular publications have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, the Washington Post, the Houston Chronicle, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Post, and elsewhere. His academic publications have appeared in the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, the Fletcher Security Review, and Public Choice. Alex has appeared on Fox News, Bloomberg, and numerous television and radio stations across the United States. He is the coauthor, with Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies, of the booklet Open Immigration: Yea and Nay (Encounter Broadsides, 2014).

He is a native of Southern California and received a BA in economics from George Mason University and a Master of Science in economic history from the London School of Economics.

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