Niskanen Center — Research on Immigration Policy (2020)

Grant investigator: Alexander Berger

This page was reviewed but not written by the grant investigator. Niskanen Center staff also reviewed this page prior to publication.

Open Philanthropy recommended a grant of $200,000 to the Niskanen Center to support its work on immigration policy. The Niskanen Center, a libertarian think tank, seeks to reduce barriers to immigration by developing and disseminating information, arguments, and policy ideas.

This follows our January 2018 support and falls within our focus area of immigration policy. It represents an “exit grant” that will provide the Niskanen Center immigration team with an additional year of support.

Niskanen Center — Research on Immigration Policy (2018)

Grant investigator: Alexander Berger

This page was reviewed but not written by the grant investigator. Niskanen Center staff also reviewed this page prior to publication.

The Open Philanthropy Project recommended a grant of $400,000 over two years to the Niskanen Center to support its work on immigration policy.

This funding represents a renewal of our 2015 grant recommendation to the Niskanen Center. Since that time, Niskanen has grown its immigration program to approximately $1M/year. Because we do not expect significant positive movement on immigration at the federal level over the next few years, we view this support primarily as a way to ensure the Niskanen Center is able to continue developing relationships and policy ideas in advance of any future opportunities for progress.

This grant falls within our focus area of immigration policy.

Niskanen Center — Research on Immigration Policy

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GiveWell’s internal notes from a conversation with Tamar Jacoby, April 7, 2014 Unpublished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