What Doesn’t the Cato Institute Get About “Illegal”?’

Less than 24 hours after Iowa law enforcement announced that Mollie Tibbetts was murdered by an illegal alien, the Cato Institute was pumping out disjointed apologetics for immigration violators. Ostensibly educating us about the goodness inherent in all illegal aliens, Cato published a piece called, “The Murder of Mollie Tibbetts and Illegal Immigrant Crime: The Facts.”

Aside from distastefully poor timing, Cato’s pompously titled piece is long on unsupported opinion but woefully light on facts. Cato analyst Alex Nowrasteh claims that politicians and border security advocates are, “using the tragic murder of Tibbetts as an argument for increasing the enforcement of immigration laws against people who aren’t charged with murder or any real crime except violating international labor market regulations (immigration laws).”  Because, “They want to convict all illegal immigrants of this murder in the court of public opinion, not just the actual murderer.”

But, the fact is, Americans don’t need an argument for enforcing our immigration laws against illegal aliens. Pursuant to federal statute, Improper Entry by an Alien and Willful Failure of an Alien to Register are both crimes. And the court of public opinion has been very clear about its stance on immigration law-breakers, it wants them deported. Witness the triumph of Donald Trump, who ran for president on an immigration enforcement platform.

The real problem with our immigration laws isn’t, as Mr. Nowrasteh claims, that “Public policy must be based on data and trends, not on horrific anecdotes like the murder of Mollie Tibbets.” Rather, it is that far too many politicians and policy analysts are willing to trivialize immigration violations in order to placate constituents who believe that American businesses should be able to profit by exploiting the illegal alien labor pool. Mr. Nowrasteh exposes his agenda when he derides U.S. immigration law as a set of “international labor market regulations.”

That is a fundamental mischaracterization of our immigration legislation. In reality, the Immigration and Nationality Act represents a clear boundary line indicating where the obligation to comply with all American laws begins and ends. As the Supreme Court eloquently put it, over a century ago, in Ekiu v. United States:

It is an accepted maxim of international law that every sovereign nation has the power, as inherent in sovereignty and essential to self-preservation, to forbid the entrance of foreigners within its dominions or to admit them only in such cases and upon such conditions as it may see fit to prescribe.

Unfortunately, Cato’s callous dismissal of Ms.Tibbetts’ murder as a “horrific anecdote” is all too typical of its standard approach to public policy questions. Cato has a bad habit of turning every public policy issue into a mathematically-expressed economics problem, then ignoring even the most legitimate moral and public order concerns if someone derives a profit from the activity in question. However, Mollie Tibbetts was not a figure on a spreadsheet and her life should not be viewed in terms of profit and loss.

Open-borders libertarians consistently tell us that rigorous immigration enforcement might lead to the deportation of a potential neurosurgeon or the future formulator of a cure for cancer. But notably absent from Cato’s probabilistic, market-based arguments is any calculation of what society loses every time an illegal alien murders a productive member of society, like Kate Steinle or Mollie Tibbetts.

About Author


Matthew J. O’Brien joined the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) in 2016. Matt is responsible for managing FAIR’s research activities. He also writes content for FAIR’s website and publications. Over the past twenty years he has held a wide variety of positions focusing on immigration issues, both in government and in the private sector. Immediately prior to joining FAIR Matt served as the Chief of the National Security Division (NSD) within the Fraud Detection and National Security Directorate (FDNS) at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), where he was responsible for formulating and implementing procedures to protect the legal immigration system from terrorists, foreign intelligence operatives, and other national security threats. He has also held positions as the Chief of the FDNS Policy and Program Development Unit, as the Chief of the FDNS EB-5 Division, as Assistant Chief Counsel with U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement, as a Senior Advisor to the Citizenship and Immigration Services Ombudsman, and as a District Adjudications Officer with the legacy Immigration & Naturalization Service. In addition, Matt has extensive experience as a private bar attorney. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in French from the Johns Hopkins University and a Juris Doctor from the University of Maine School of Law.


  1. avatar
    Karen O'Donnell on

    I am curious if CATO ever did this math:

    2017 – 325.7 million (known ) population in this country, of 3, 725 million sq. miles = .001197 sq. mile per person minus things like lakes, parks, farms, housing etc.etc.etc. its not noticed because most of the population lives in 9 over populated states.

    Countries like Mexico, South Africa, Syria, South America, Johannesburg Africa, India Countries with millions of poor, over population, chemical war on families, drug cartel control all do not have the ability to apply for the visa lottery, but those who live in peaceful countries with jobs, homes, medical and dental , like England, Canada, Russia, Poland and Australia all take up those visa not caring for the less unfortunate and most discussing are the Doctors, Teachers, Nurses, Scienist, Lawyers who came here since 1960,s on a student visa and stayed then bringing their families here, they should have to go home and take care of the suffering people from their countries , imagine how those countries would actually be like today if the students obeyed the laws and went home. I wounder what figure the CATO would get if they actually counted all the immigrants who married and had just one child (?) then the amount of those who were divorced leaving just how many children in broken homes? including those from homes who the immigrants broke up a marriage…together its a complicated issue all around and I for one appreciate Mr. O’Brian’s work.

  2. avatar

    This episode was not a good one for the media agenda. When Kate Steinle was killed by a convicted criminal illegal that San Francisco had put back on the street, instead of handing him over to ICE, it was known right away who had done it. Thus her situation did not get the attention that this case did. Very few people know who she is. But the exposure in this case went on for weeks, it was assumed she had been murdered, and there was no way the media could just drop it because it involved an illegal, as they would have loved to have done.

    Mr. Nowrasteh’s dishonest attempt to dismiss the clear national laws concerning who should and should not be in this country, by casting those laws as merely “international labor market regulations”, is just the logical extension of his and CATO’s open borders agenda. Once again, if we have laws you don’t like, then work to get them changed. Ignoring them is not an option of any society that does not want to be a banana republic.

    And if he is so concerned with “data” how about the indisputable figures that show that the low paid illegal aliens he so loves to embrace are a huge burden on the taxpayers of this country with the welfare paid out to their anchor baby children. In fact, under CATO’s concept of survival of the fittest, there would not be any of that welfare. But it’s fine with them when business gets their dirt cheap labor and the taxpayers pick up all the social costs.

  3. avatar
    Elyse DeWyngaert on

    September 11′ 2001 was a day of reckoning. The hijackers and the illegal alien from El Salvador that sold his address information on to Mohammed Atta destroyed the lives of thousands of innocent people in this country. The 9)11 Commission set up steps that needed to be enforced to stop this insanity. We have been in protracted wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, where thousands more Americans have died or been maimed. We live in a country that allows corrupted influences impact our communities reaping death and destruction without concern, refusing to remove illegal aliens and incarcerating offending employers.
    Mollie is just another casualty that will be ignored and trivialized.
    American citizens are chaf and illegal aliens are all saints.