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Niskanen Center — Research on Immigration Policy

Organization Name 
Award Date 
Grant Amount 
To support the Niskanen Center's work on immigration policy.
Topic (focus area) 

Published: October 2015

Niskanen Center staff reviewed this page prior to publication.

Note: This page was created using content published by Good Ventures and GiveWell, the organizations that created the Open Philanthropy Project, before this website was launched. Uses of “we” and “our” on this page may therefore refer to Good Ventures or GiveWell, but they still represent the work of the Open Philanthropy Project.

The Niskanen Center is a new libertarian think tank that has made reducing barriers to immigration one of its focus areas. In our exploration of immigration policy (which we have identified as a priority cause), we found very few organizations dedicated to making the case for more people, including lower-skill workers, to be able to move to high-income countries. We see this as an opportunity to fund an advocacy organization with an unusual level of alignment with us on this issue.

The Niskanen Center intends to promote policy change by developing and disseminating information, arguments, and new policy ideas, including to key players in Washington, D.C. We do not have a strong sense of whether this approach is likely to be successful, but it strikes us as potentially promising, and we are generally excited about growing the number of organizations that share our goals in this area.

Based on these considerations, the Open Philanthropy Project decided to recommend a grant of $360,000 over two years to support the Niskanen Center’s work on immigration policy.

Rationale for the grant

The cause

Immigration policy, particularly allowing more people to be able to move to high-income countries, is a top priority cause for us, and as such we have been looking for grantmaking opportunities. Our perception is that there is significant organized attention devoted to allowing more high-skill immigration, but little for other categories of immigration.1 We see this grant as an unusual opportunity to fund advocates who share our goal of allowing more immigration (of many kinds) for broadly humanitarian reasons, though Niskanen conceptualizes its goal in terms of increasing human liberty while we tend to think in terms of increasing human welfare.

The organization

The Niskanen Center is a libertarian think tank founded in 2014 by Jerry Taylor, who had previously worked at the Cato Institute for many years.2 Liberalizing immigration law is one of the Center’s initial focus areas, along with taxing carbon emissions, reducing US military spending, and promoting civil liberties. The Niskanen Center’s interest in immigration arises from its broadly libertarian outlook, while our interest in the area is more based on expected welfare improvements, but the Center shares our long-term goal of allowing substantially more immigration.3

Budget and proposed activities

Currently, the Niskanen Center has one staff member and one research assistant working on immigration policy. Niskanen asked us for $360,000 over two years, which would be enough to pay for an additional full-time Immigration Policy Counsel along with associated costs.4

The Niskanen Center identified a number of policy proposals that it might try to support:5

  • Expanding temporary visa programs for lower-skill workers.
  • Letting states play a larger role in determining how many immigrants they receive, which may lead to better outcomes by removing the veto of anti-immigration states on inflows to states that want to allow more immigration, and by creating competition for labor between states.
  • Preserving the Diversity Visa Lottery Program. The Diversity Visa Lottery is unpopular among many immigration reformers because of its arbitrary nature, but is the main pathway to legal immigration from many poor countries.

Tactics the Niskanen Center plans to use to promote immigration liberalization include:

  • Original research to make the economic case for immigration and show that current residents should not expect to be harmed by it.6

  • Engaging with individual members of Congress and their staffers on the specifics of immigration policy, in order to make the right case to key decision-makers. This also requires keeping abreast of new political and legislative developments in order to recognize especially opportune times for advocacy.7

  • Drafting proposed legislation.8

  • Writing papers or hosting events to discuss new policy proposals.9

Case for the grant

Our conversations with staff from the Niskanen Center gave us the sense that they share our goal of allowing significantly more migration, including by lower-skilled people and those from low-income countries. From what we have seen so far in our investigation of immigration policy, this is an unusual perspective, and one that we are excited to see represented.

The Niskanen Center’s strategy is to try to get information, arguments, and new policy ideas directly into the hands of key decision-makers, rather than building long-term interest group alignment or changing public opinion.10 We are uncertain whether this strategy is likely to work, but view it as one promising approach to try. We can imagine a scenario in which Niskanen is able to popularize a proposal that ends up as part of comprehensive immigration reform package in 2017, or is able to provide information that leads to a tweak in enacted legislation, and believe that the grant is likely to be very worthwhile in such a case.

Our impression is that the Niskanen Center is plausibly well-positioned to execute this strategy successfully, though we have not investigated the organization in great depth. David Bier, the policy analyst currently leading Niskanen’s work on immigration policy, previously worked for another libertarian think tank, the Competitive Enterprise institute, and was the immigration staffer in the office of Raúl Labrador, a House Republican who was part of the House Gang of Eight working on comprehensive immigration reform.11

Room for more funding

Niskanen is a small organization, with 12 staff members as of September 2015. It told us that it expects to have an annual budget of $2 million by the end of 2015, and that most of its donors are self-identified libertarians. We are not aware of other individuals or organizations interested in funding the Niskanen Center’s work on immigration specifically, but we believe there is a significant risk that our grant offsets other funding that Niskanen might have raised to support its immigration work. We decided to go ahead and support the Center, rather than wait and see, because we see its position on this issue as being significantly underrepresented at a fairly important time, and because we do not see the risk from offsetting its funds as overwhelming.

Risks and offsetting factors

We think policy advocacy efforts are always risky, and we would not be surprised at all if this grant fails to affect policy.

We can also imagine a few ways this grant could cause harm (although we do not believe that any of them are likely):

  • This grant could potentially substitute for general funds, which might be redirected to uses that we did not anticipate and do not support. In particular, while the Niskanen Center’s current policy goals appear to be ones that we could support, we do not share its general libertarian outlook and may regard some of its goals in future priority areas as harmful.

  • Funding a libertarian think tank could conceivably compromise our reputation among people and organizations of differing political persuasions.

Plans for learning and follow-up

Goals for this grant

We see this grant as a way to build the capacity of one of the very few groups that shares our policy agenda in this area. We hope that additional capacity leads to two specific outcomes:

  • Identifying additional angles on immigration policy on which we might be interested in working. For instance, we had not been considering the Diversity Visa program prior to Niskanen identifying its preservation as a goal.
  • Immigration policy experts we spoke with, including Mr. Bier, told us that they expect Congress to consider another comprehensive immigration bill in 2017.12 By that time, we hope that the Niskanen Center has advanced proposals that are under consideration to be included in the comprehensive bill, and that the Center is in a position to weigh in to a smaller extent on other parts of the legislative immigration discussion (e.g. by proposing tweaks that are incorporated into proposed bill language).

Key questions for follow-up

  • How does Niskanen Center spend the grant funds? How does this compare to its budget and expectations at the beginning of the grant period?

  • What work does Niskanen ultimately prioritize during the grant period?
  • Is the Niskanen Center able to affect any legislation around immigration? How large is the expected impact of such changes?
  • What allies, if any, is the Niskanen Center able to mobilize to support its immigration agenda?
  • What other immigration policy issues or proposals does the Niskanen Center identify as potential areas of work?

Follow-up expectations

We expect to have a conversation with Niskanen Center staff every 3-6 months for the next two years, with public notes if the conversation warrants it.

We expect to provide an update on this grant after one year either by publishing public notes or by producing a brief writeup. After the grant is spent down, we plan to attempt a more holistic and detailed evaluation of the grant’s performance. However, we may abandon either or both of these follow-up expectations or perform more follow-up than planned if the circumstances call for it.

Our review process

We approached Niskanen in June 2015 to discuss funding opportunities relating to advocacy for lower-skill immigration, and a series of conversations about its work culminated in a request for funding. We solicited background feedback about the Center from a few other sources prior to making a decision about funding it.

We shared a draft version of this page with Niskanen staff prior to the grant being finalized.


Bier 2015Source (archive)
GiveWell’s internal notes from a conversation with Tamar Jacoby, April 7, 2014Unpublished
GiveWell’s non-verbatim summary of a conversation with David Bier, June 5, 2015Source
GiveWell’s non-verbatim summary of a conversation with Michael Clemens, April 21, 2014Source
GiveWell’s non-verbatim summary of a conversation with Neil Ruiz, June 28, 2013Source
Niskanen Center ConspectusSource (archive)
Niskanen Center, AboutSource (archive)
Niskanen Center, Immigration Policy Counsel ProposalSource
Niskanen Center, Sanctuary from Misrule: AboutSource (archive)

  • 1.

    “Advocates for increased immigration generally focus on the immigration of high-skill workers (such as computer programmers), but there is a stronger humanitarian case for liberalizing migration of low-skilled workers (such as landscape workers and caretakers for the elderly). This is due to the greater number of potential low-skill migrants, their lower baseline income, and the higher (proportional) wage gains they derive from migration.” GiveWell’s non-verbatim summary of a conversation with Michael Clemens, April 21, 2014

  • 2.

    Niskanen Center, About:

    • “Established in 2014, the Niskanen Center is a libertarian 501(c)(3) think tank that works to change public policy through direct engagement in the policymaking process”
    • “Jerry Taylor is the president of the Niskanen Center. Prior to founding the Center in 2014, Mr. Taylor spent 23 years at the Cato Institute, where he served as director of natural resource studies, assistant editor of Regulation magazine, senior fellow, and then vice president. Before that, Mr. Taylor was the staff director for the energy and environment task force at the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).”

  • 3.

    • “Legal movement of immigrants enriches our economy and our society, while increasing the liberty of Americans to associate with peaceful people from around the world. America’s laws should be reformed to reflect our nation’s traditions of freedom, limited government, and openness to people of all types.” Niskanen Center, Sanctuary from Misrule: About

    • “Niskanen is working to increase immigration to the US as part of an overall goal to increase human liberty. It believes that protecting individual rights and liberties should be the highest goal of government, and that liberty should not be denied without good reason. In the case of immigration, this means that anyone who does not pose a serious threat to the safety or health of Americans should be allowed to come to the US and work legally. Niskanen holds that anything that increases the opportunity for immigrants to come to the US increases human freedom.
      In addition to the current legal channels through which less-skilled workers can come to the US, Niskanen supports the use of dual intent work visas because they reduce illegal immigration.” GiveWell’s non-verbatim summary of a conversation with David Bier, June 5, 2015

  • 4.

    “The Niskanen Center seeks $360,000 over two years in order to support the Center’s immigration policy reform efforts and hire Immigration Policy Counsel. The main work of the immigration policy reform campaign is to engage in political entrepreneurship to craft and advance politically attractive immigration reform ideas. The requested grant of $360,000 over two years will fund the salary, and other associated costs, of a new legal analyst.
    Two-Year Budget:
    Immigration Policy Counsel - $300,000
    Associated Benefits - $30,000
    Administration, Research Software, Events - $30,000
    Total - $360,000” Niskanen Center, Immigration Policy Counsel Proposal

  • 5.

    Promoting policy reform

    […] Niskanen has proposed and promoted several limited reforms, which it hopes might end up being part of a package that is eventually passed in 2017.

    Guest workers
    Making more temporary work visas available to less-skilled guest workers would reduce illegal immigration and increase growth in the less-skilled sector of the workforce.

    State-based immigration quotas
    Giving states more power to decide how many work visas to grant may increase competition for labor between states, which would make each state more likely to increase its immigration quotas. This would lead to a gradual increase in the total number of immigrants admitted to the US. Several states have indicated that they would be in favor of this if the federal government were to allow it. Laws have been passed in Colorado and Georgia, and senate committees in Arizona and Texas explored possibilities in this area.
    Although there is little federal support for state-based immigration quotas, this issue could be presented to the congressional representatives of these states as something that would help their states achieve their goals. An argument couched in terms of states’ self-interest could be more viable in Congress than a simple plea to work on immigration reform. The states’ work on introducing legislation would demonstrate to Congress that this idea already has some support.
    Many congressional representatives previously worked in state legislatures, and may also have personal relationships with the legislators who introduced these bills. These personal relationships may be advantageous in getting federal approval of state-based immigration quotas.
    While several states are beginning to show their support, it is difficult to find groups to take up this cause. There are not many people promoting the idea of state-based immigration quotas, and Mr. Bier is not aware of anyone in Washington, D.C. promoting the idea of following the states’ lead on immigration reform. Niskanen has begun working to fill this gap.
    Diversity Visa lottery
    Niskanen works to protect the Diversity Visa Lottery, which is the primary channel through which workers come to the US from many low-income countries. The lottery system awards green cards to immigrants primarily from poor countries in Africa and Asia. Mr. Bier is working to find a politically palatable replacement to the Diversity Visa program.
    Work to increase the limit on refugee visas
    Mr. Bier is interested in working to convince the President to increase the number of refugee visas granted in the US. The President sends a proposal to Congress every year suggesting a limit on refugee visas for the coming year, which is usually accepted without substantial debate. This puts the President in a strong position to affect change in this area. A member of the administration has expressed interest in working on this, but is concerned both because there is no political constituency for refugees, and because refugees receive welfare (including food stamps and/or Medicaid), and there is not enough funding to support a big increase in refugee admissions. When Mr. Bier suggested that all additional refugees over the current limit not be given welfare, the member of the administration responded that this is not feasible because Democrats, who are most likely to vote in favor of increasing the limit, would be unlikely to support a policy that denies refugees welfare. With more time and resources, Mr. Bier would like to work on finding a way to increase the number of refugees without spending a lot of additional money on welfare.” GiveWell’s non-verbatim summary of a conversation with David Bier, June 5, 2015

  • 6.
    • “Niskanen does original research on population and immigration issues, through which it hopes to demonstrate that immigration should not be feared but encouraged.” GiveWell’s non-verbatim summary of a conversation with David Bier, June 5, 2015

    • “Opponents of the H-1B high-skilled work visa argue that businesses use it primarily to replace American workers with cheaper foreign substitutes, taking jobs from native-born workers and undercutting their wages. But the data show that over the last decade, as businesses have requested more H-1Bs, they also expanded jobs for Americans.

      If H-1Bs were primarily cheaper substitutes for American labor, the pace of H-1B requests—measured by the length of time before the cap on visas is reached—should rise when unemployment rises, as employers look to cut labor costs by laying off workers. But since 2003, we see the opposite: H-1B requests rise as unemployment falls. For every one percent increase in unemployment for workers with computer and tech expertise, who represent two-thirds of all H-1Bs, it takes an additional three months to reach the visa cap. In other words, companies use H-1Bs to grow, not to downsize.” Bier 2015

  • 7.

    “When asked what he would do with additional resources, Mr. Bier said he would like to stay more up to date on all of the work being done on immigration reform in Washington, D.C., and increase Niskanen’s engagement with members of Congress and their staff. He would like to engage with Congress on the specifics of policy being debated, including arguments for and against it, the specific reform that Niskanen would like to see, and the specific legislative language needed to get reform passed.
    Currently Mr. Bier is not aware of anyone who represents Niskanen’s perspective on immigration regularly engaging with members of Congress on legislation. Congress currently gets its information on pieces of legislation from interest groups, businesses, and staff of congressional committees, who do not share Niskanen’s interest in advancing human liberty and freedom of movement.” GiveWell’s non-verbatim summary of a conversation with David Bier, June 5, 2015

  • 8.

  • 9.

    The audience for external work product is the same political and policy insiders who are the focus of the Center’s internal work product. Hence, the objective of external work product is not primarily to change mass public opinion (the purview of other libertarian think tanks and the main goal of their respective media operations). Rather, the objective is to establish credibility with knowledgeable policy insiders and persuade them to embrace the Center’s reform agenda. External work product will thus supplement internal work product.
    POLICY PAPERS – Policy departments will publish brief, succinct, empirically-based issue papers. More extensive papers to provide the intellectual heft for the Center’s positions will be published in third party publications.” Niskanen Center Conspectus

  • 10.

    “The Niskanen Center is a libertarian 501(c)(3) organization that works to change public policy through direct engagement in the policymaking process: developing proposals, mobilizing other groups to support those proposals, promoting them to legislative and executive decision makers, building short- and longer-term coalitions to facilitate joint action, establishing strong working relationships with allied legislative and executive branch actors, and marshaling the most convincing arguments and information in support of our agenda.
    Libertarians have a vision of policy change, but no theory about exactly how it will occur, much less a means or mechanism for executing policy changes. The Niskanen Center’s focus on policy change complements the work of existing libertarian organizations, which are primarily engaged in other activities such as analyzing or criticizing policy, changing public opinion, and electing libertarian-leaning politicians.” Niskanen Center Conspectus

  • 11.

    “Mr. Bier previously worked as an Immigration Policy Analyst for the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), another libertarian think tank, and for Congressman Raúl Labrador, who was part of the House Gang of Eight working on comprehensive immigration reform. Mr. Bier wanted to continue this work in order to promote the view that an increase in immigration would be good for the US and that Americans should not fear immigration. This led him to join Niskanen in February of this year.” GiveWell’s non-verbatim summary of a conversation with David Bier, June 5, 2015

  • 12.

    “Mr. Bier does not expect significant reforms to be passed before 2017, but there are other current opportunities to work on this issue. Niskanen has proposed and promoted several limited reforms, which it hopes might end up being part of a package that is eventually passed in 2017.” GiveWell’s non-verbatim summary of a conversation with David Bier, June 5, 2015