By his own admission, Alex Nowrasteh is something of an anomaly.
The 29-year-old Iranian-American, a lifelong Republican, sees a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants as part and parcel of libertarian doctrine.
"When France was experimenting with capitalism around the time of the French Revolution, the term 'laissez-faire' came up as an expression of free markets," said Nowrasteh, the immigration-policy analyst at the Cato Institute's Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity. "But most people don't know that it was coupled with another phrase, 'laissez-passer,' which means, 'Let people go where they want.' "
"Today, there are enormous restrictions on where people can move globally, and that's a huge impediment to movement," he said.
With the GOP in a demographic quandary—covetous of Latino voters but losing in that very same demographic—Nowrasteh's brand of libertarianism is gaining traction in some Republican circles as Congress continues to debate immigration reform.
"I speak conservat-ese," Nowrasteh said. "I know Republicans [opposed to comprehensive immigration reform] aren't being racist … it's easier for me to talk to them than it is for people coming from the Left."
Nowrasteh was raised near Burbank, Calif. His parents, Cyrus and Betsy Giffen Nowrasteh, cowrote the screenplay for the 2008 movie The Stoning of Soraya M.
Growing up, he was instilled with the belief that "anybody could come to America." Some of his family members had been drummed out of Iran after the 1979 revolution under the pretext that they were traitors. "My grandparents have the stereotypical immigrant tale. They were poor, they were young, and they had funny stories about not being able to speak English properly."
Mindful of his family's persecution by a repressive regime, Nowrasteh gravitated toward laissez-faire economics, but his affinity for the GOP was complicated by the 1994 midterm elections, when California voters were subject to a "vicious, anti-immigrant tirade" in connection with a ballot initiative to bar undocumented immigrants from using state-run social services.
He later enrolled at George Mason University, in Fairfax, Va., a bastion of libertarian thinkers like economist Walter E. Williams. For Nowrasteh, it was a mild "shock" to be among like-minded people after spending his childhood as "the only kid in the crowd" with fiscal conservative views but progressive social views.
"It's not a common ideology," said Nowrasteh, who also has a degree in economic history from the London School of Economics.
After working for a few years in financial management, Nowrasteh had "this really stupid notion that I wanted to go to law school," he said. He took some time off to study for the LSATs and then found himself with time to spare before the start of the school year. "I figured, 'I'm going to take this opportunity to intern at a libertarian think tank, because this will be the last chance I ever get.' "
In 2007, he interned at the American Enterprise Institute and started working on immigration policy almost immediately, a job that led to his post at Cato.
"I saw a niche for myself," he said. "I could either be the 500th person talking about the income tax, or the first person talking about immigration."
This article appears in the August 7, 2013, edition of NJ Daily.