Alex Nowrasteh and Benjamin Powell: Immigrants Revitalize Faith in American Institutions

A new book, Wretched Refuse?, documents that newcomers not only increase economic activity but often revitalize faith in free market, limited-government institutions.


Do immigrants bring with them the worst attributes of the countries and societies they are fleeing?

That fear motivates anti-immigrant sentiments from populists and nationalists such as President Donald Trump, who famously declared at the start of his campaign for the presidency that "when Mexico sends its people, they're not sending their best." It also stokes anxiety from an influential group of mostly free market economists such as Harvard's George Borjas, Britain's Paul Collier, and George Mason's Garret Jones, who speculate that mass immigration from countries with illiberal political and economic cultures will undermine countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom.

In Wretched Refuse?: The Political Economy of Immigration and Institutions, Alex Nowrasteh and Benjamin Powell take an exhaustive look at the data and conclude that destination countries not only benefit economically from immigration but that many key markers of liberal democracy—such as support for the rule of law, belief in private property, and trust in government—improve when newcomers arrive en masse.

"One of the things we take a look at sort of in some detail in the book is whether immigrants have more trust in our institutions—whether they have more trust in the legal system, whether they have more trust in American businesses, whether they have more trust in the general sense of government and the way things are run here," says Nowrasteh, director of immigration studies at the libertarian Cato Institute. "Overwhelmingly they do. If it weren't for immigrants in the United States, trust in these institutions would be a lot lower."

Powell, an economist at Texas Tech who also heads up that school's Free Market Institute, points to the experience of Israel in the 1990s, whose population increased by 20 percent, largely due to Jews fleeing the former Soviet Union. "There was a massive flood of people coming from a country with a 70-year history of no rule of law and no economic freedoms [who] piled into Israel with immediate voting rights. Confidence in property rights didn't go down," notes Powell. "Confidence in property rights didn't go down, it went up. [So did] economic freedoms across board…Israel went from something like 90th in the world in economic freedom to 45th during a period of massive immigration from a communist country."

Audio production by Ian Keyser.

Photo: Rrodrickbeiler |

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  1. So, what’s wrong with progressives?

    Why do they hate what immigrants love but pretend to be all about immigration?

    I suspect they only love immigrants because they hate Republicans.

    Go around the world and look at socialist countries. The more socialist countries get, the pickier they tend to become about the beneficiaries of their . . . ahem . . . generosity.

    1. Perhaps to state the obvious, progressives hate immigrants, and other people, who want to be autonomous and independent thinkers. The only good “citizen” is a compliant and predictable (and dependent) voter, who wants their needs met by politicians and other leaders with superior image and power.

    2. They’re not for immigration. They never even pretended to until Trump and Republicans switched sides and were suddenly against legal immigration. Go listen to pre-2016 Democrat primary debates. All about protectionism and keeping foreigners out. Especially that Bernie dude.

      1. Neither Trump nor republicans are against *legal* immigration. They might have some policies about restricting it to one degree or another.

        Trump’s wife, the current FLOTUS, is a legal immigrant.

        There’s a major problem with political bad-acting people conflating regular, legal immigrants, with the undocumented illegal immigrants. FFS, the Mexican side of my family, which includes all types – natural born citizens, immigrant citizens, legal resident aliens, and illegals, they all understand the difference.

  2. Finally….a libertarian-ish oriented article.

    The Israel example is singularly bad to try to show how Soviet Jews coming to Israel did not lower confidence in property rights. Israel assimilated Soviet Jews, most of whom already had a shared cultural or religious background rooted in their Judaism (and Torah, to a lesser extent).

    I am all for immigration. Lots of it. Millions every year. However, I would hold off until our UI hits 5% or less, and we have more job openings than workers to fill them. That was the case just a year ago. It is not like it is unachievable. We did it under POTUS Trump.

    As a country, we need a more rational discussion over immigration. POTUS Trump is right when he says an American green card is a huge incentive. We should absolutely use that to our advantage, and attract self-supporting immigrants with skill sets that we need. We’re competing with Europe and Asia for the best talent in the world. We need a differentiator and the green card is it. I don’t see that as political, that is just rational.

    1. Seems reasonable.

  3. “destination countries not only benefit economically from immigration”

    And more importantly from a libertarian POV, billionaires benefit economically from immigration. That’s why Charles Koch considers it a smart investment to fund open borders advocacy through organizations like Reason and Cato.


  4. And so another rousing meeting of Libertarians For Authoritarian, Bigoted, Cruel Immigration Policies And Practices is convened . . .

    Carry on, clingers.

    1. Fuck off non lawyer.

    2. Ah ok you hate brown people.

    3. Kirkland loves cheap slaves but hate legitimate immigration.

      His pals make legitimate immigration a circus acrobat’s act, but open the doors wide for illegals. That way they can skip minimum wage and the myriad of regulations they’ve enacted, and pay next to nothing for their own gardeners, au pairs and factory slaves.

  5. What do immigrants think of the 1st amendment? Do they love it, or do they think it should have “exceptions”
    How about the 2nd? 4th?

    Welfare state?

    If they revitalize trust in institutions why is trust (justifiably) lower now than it’s been in decades?

    1. An acceptance or approval of Constitutional fundamentals could be a criteria for citizenship in the US–and maybe for native-born people, too.

      1. Interesting idea. Who get to decide on Constitutional fundamentals? I am guessing if you get a dozen Constitutional scholars in a room they might agree on half the ideas of what is fundamental.

    2. “If they revitalize trust in institutions why is trust (justifiably) lower now than it’s been in decades?”

      I imagine the letter m p r u and t will appear in the answer.

  6. Get rid of all the social benefits that people want to promise to others and I’d be cool with immigrants en masse. Brings in more types of cuisine and exotic womens. But until people stock picking my pockets to give it to someone else and tell me I’m not worthy of the same benefit they can stay where they are.

  7. documents that newcomers not only increase economic activity but often revitalize faith in free market, limited-government institutions.

    How can the revitalize faith in something that no longer exists?

  8. How does legal immigration tell us anything about illegal immigration?

    1. People are people.

      1. Untrue. People are different.

      2. …so how can it be?

        Making me remember that POS song existed is coal in the stocking this holiday season. Depeche Mode sux.

  9. Where’s Shikha?

  10. Pro-immigrant arguments tend to be superficial, but this is ridiculous.
    Immigrants “have more trust in the legal system, … more trust in American businesses, … more trust in the general sense of government and the way things are run here.” Care to guess why US native citizens have less trust in these things? Something to do with first-hand experience, perhaps?

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  12. Immigration isn’t the important issue you seem to think it is.

  13. First I love immigrant cuisines and food is not a problem.

    Second the rise in anti-immigrant sentiment in the Republican party corresponds to the loss of economic sense in the party. We see an end of concern about the national debt, the end of support for free trade and a denial of the economic benefit of immigrants about the same time. Hopefully Trump marks the highpoint of the economic ignorance and Republican will regroup older and wiser.

  14. >newcomers not only increase economic activity but often revitalize faith in free market, limited-government institutions

    At last! A coherent explanation for Santa Ana and Anaheim, California, and Mogadishu on the Mississippi!

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