Why America needs immigrants
New citizens are sworn in during a ceremony in Washington, D.C.
June 8th, 2012
07:35 AM ET

Why America needs immigrants

Fareed Zakaria looks at how the immigration systems work – and don't work – in Japan, Europe, Canada and the U.S. in the TV special: "Global Lessons: The GPS Roadmap for Making Immigration Work" on CNN at 8 p.m. ET on Sunday, June 10. Watch on CNN International on Saturday, June 16, at 4 a.m. and 9 p.m. ET

Editor's note: Philippe Legrain is the author of "Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them" and "Aftershock: Reshaping the World Economy After the Crisis." Follow on Twitter @plegrain. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Philippe Legrain.

By Philippe Legrain, Special to CNN

It is no longer acceptable to discriminate against people on the basis of a whole range of characteristics that they happen to be born with, notably their gender, their race and their sexuality. So why is it still deemed acceptable to discriminate against people on the basis of where they happen to have been born?

The world is anything but flat: the biggest determinant of your life chances is not how talented you are or how hard you work, it is where you were born and who your parents are. Anyone lucky enough to have been born in the United States who doubts this should try to imagine how different their life would have been if they had been born in Africa.

Zakaria: Will an immigration deadlock make the U.S. a second-rate nation?

A hard-working entrepreneur born in a remote African village has far fewer opportunities to achieve his dreams than a lazy dimwit born in America. Even if the African seizes all her chances and the American none, the American is still likely to enjoy a more comfortable life. And the surest thing that African could do to transform her (and her family's) life chances is to go and work in the U.S.

But only if governments allow her to. Unfortunately, we live in a system of global apartheid, where the rich and the educated can move about increasingly freely, while the poor are expected to stay put, like serfs tied to the land where they were born.

Can the U.S. learn from other countries' immigration policies?

For the most part, people are oblivious to the injustice of this: it is seen as part of the natural order of things, like slavery once was. But insofar as people try to justify this unnatural and unjust state of affairs, they claim immigration controls are necessary to protect people in rich countries from their poorer brethren. Yet if one thinks a bit more carefully, one realizes that these objections don't stand up.

One objection to allowing women into the workplace was that they would take jobs away from men. But in practice, women have not deprived men of work. Why? Because people don't just take jobs, they also create them, when they spend their wages as well as in complementary lines of work. The same is true, of course, of immigrants.

By the numbers: U.S. immigrants

Another objection is that immigrants will all end up on welfare – as if someone enterprising enough to uproot themselves to move to America will suddenly want to do nothing, even though they could earn more working. Indeed, when immigrants are working, they're accused of stealing "our" jobs and when they're out of work, they're accused of scrounging from the state. They can't win: they're damned if they do and damned if they don't. Such accusations tell us more about critics' prejudices than about immigrants' behavior.

There is also something unpleasant about the notion that governments can – and ought to – select only the seemingly best people to allow in to a country. It is nonsense that we can predict how someone will contribute to a country, let alone how their children will. Who would have guessed that the son of a Kenyan goatherd would end up as U.S. president?

More from "Global Lessons: The GPS Roadmap for Making Immigration Work"

Google, Yahoo!, eBay, Intel and many other companies were all co-founded by people born outside America who arrived not through some clever selection process, but as children. Nobody could have guessed, when he arrived in the United States as a child refugee from the Soviet Union, that Sergey Brin would go on to co-found Google. Had he been denied entry, America would never have realized the opportunity that had been missed. How many potential Sergey Brins do Europe and post-9/11 America turn away or scare off – and at what cost?

As Fareed Zakaria rightly remarked in his book "The Post-American World,": "America has succeeded not because of the ingenuity of its government programs but because of the vigor of its society. It has thrived because it has kept itself open to the world – to goods and services, to ideas and inventions, and, above all to peoples and cultures."

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Philippe Legrain.

soundoff (1,241 Responses)
  1. Dave

    I don't want to hear any arguments on why there needs to be less White people and more minorities in this country. That is a losing proposition from the word go that merely serves to benefit said minorities who are jealous of White power and rank. So naturally in the above picture they decide to show 2 butt ugly Africans and one Asian wishing that they were in power instead of Whites. Got news for you. America has NEVER needed minorities. Not as far as Whites are concerned, and not while Whites still overwhelmingly hold power and rank in America. Which will be for a LONG time

    June 8, 2012 at 3:12 pm | Reply
    • MySay500

      Then why are so many of you white people with such small 'apparatus' running scared?

      June 8, 2012 at 8:25 pm | Reply
      • Josh Jaye

        MySay500: Who said anybody was running Scared? With certain groups, all you are interested in is the "aparatus". Guess that's why you walk down the streets holding onto it, for fear someone might "steal" it. Don't worry! Nobody else wants it. As a matter of fact, you might benefit from washing it. And your eyesight might improve....LOL

        July 8, 2012 at 2:42 am |
  2. Ed

    Philippe Legrain, you are an idiot. We have enough skilled Americans out of work, we need to reduce immigration drastically. Try going to Australia on a work Visa, the first thing they ask is "when are you going to leave and prove it".

    June 8, 2012 at 3:15 pm | Reply
    • ES

      Anyone who ever dealt with US immigration authorities knows that US does the same when you pass the border. And if there is any doubt you'll be put on a plane back.

      June 8, 2012 at 3:43 pm | Reply
  3. Vyger

    Pretty simple. Immigrants are accepted here everyday you hack! Apply, get approved, be a responsible TAX PAYING citizen and everything is hunky dory. Skip any of the steps and you are just an illegal who needs to be deported.

    June 8, 2012 at 3:15 pm | Reply
  4. Jacob

    Ignorance is bliss... This country was founded on immigration for the morons who have never read a book... The fact is we need to build and unite our country, not divid and conquer it. If one of these "immigrants" can attain the proper education and support to become a successful individual that may some-day make medical advancements or make advancements in our communities, that makes us better as a nation. It is small minded people who think of only themselves that spew their hate, God states that we are all brothers and sisters... So before you speak take a look in the mirror and realize just who you 'really' are, because I don't know how people can lay down at night and be content with all the sickening detest they have for their own human race...

    June 8, 2012 at 3:15 pm | Reply
    • Jorge

      This country was also founded on war, but you will never hear a leftist use that to justify Iraq and Afghanistan.

      June 8, 2012 at 3:16 pm | Reply
  5. Jorge

    Tell that to all the people who are out of work.

    June 8, 2012 at 3:15 pm | Reply
  6. tonyl

    Since 9/11 our policies of revenge against all other races and immigrants is one of the main the reason for our declining economy. The pace of migration of investments and educated professional has declined due to our immigration policies. Most of the foreign investments and professionals now go to Canada, Australia, China, Brazil etc. Those countries are growing strong. Canada which is our neighbor to the north has a booming economy. We need immigrants willing to invest in our country and professional with specialized degrees to become Americans.

    June 8, 2012 at 3:15 pm | Reply
  7. Jerry

    I'm sorry, we're filled up. We don't have enough jobs or colleges openings to accommodate our present citizens, let along a flood of new arrivals. Even if we needed more immigrants, many new arrivals prefer to reject our culture. Earlier in our history immigrants became part of the "melding pot", to blend into our culture and society. A large portion of the new immigrants prefer to retain their own language and culture and remain distinct and separate from the mainstream. Liberals gush over what they call "diversity" but there is danger in promoting separatism.

    June 8, 2012 at 3:16 pm | Reply
    • tonyl

      There are over 3 million job openings unfilled in US. But they need educated people with specialized skills and education. So they are not filled. We have high school dropouts Americans looking for jobs with no skills. We need professionals to immigrate and become Americans and contribute to our future growth.

      June 8, 2012 at 3:22 pm | Reply
  8. JAMES

    I disrciminate based on what I see people doing every day, regardless of skin color, religion, etc. I am an equal opportunity discriminator. When we have millions unemployed and we pay illegal aliens under the table cash so no tax can be collected there is something wrong. How about we stop trying to be politically correct and send these illegal aliens back from where they came and prosecute anyone caught knowingly hiring these people. American needs to start encouraging legal immigration into this country and stop trying to prosecute states for enforicing illegal immigration laws. I might ask our alien supports, what other laws would you like our federal government to ignore?

    June 8, 2012 at 3:17 pm | Reply


    June 8, 2012 at 3:17 pm | Reply
  10. Joe

    Mr. Legrain misses the point. No one disputes that we need immigrants. The issue is how many and under what rules. All of us want immigrants to be the next techno-wonderkind like Sergey Brin (who legally emigrated as a child from the former Soviet Union), but most are not. Most immigrants today are poor and need public assistance. Before the immigration laws changed in 1965, immigrants had to have actual sponsors (people in the U.S. who could help them) and received no government assistance. They either had to make it on their own or starve. Many had to return to their home-countries.

    Today, however, immigrants receive free benefits at the American tax payers' expense. They receive free health care (Medicaid), free education (public schools), public assistance (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families – "TANF"), food stamps, and unemployment benefits. Even if you factored in the payroll taxes that many immigrants (legal and illegal) pay, it doesn't even come close to the billions of dollars that are spent on the benefits they receive. This is particulary true with immigrants under "refugee" status, because they are eligible for additional federal benefits (Refugee Cash Assistance Program).

    Basically, we need some breathing room as a society; a chance for our newest immigrants to become productive members of the economy. We need to take five steps in order to control and make successful our immigration policy. (1) Suspend the Refugee program completely for at least a decade; (2) Limit the number of family members to just the immigrants children and spouse; (3) Allow Mexican immigrants special status under work-visas; (4) Grant amnesty to the illegals who are here – excluding the individuals who have felony convictions and/or mental health disabilities; and (5) Limit the number of immigrants to 500,000 per year, with exceptions being granted for "highly-skilled" individuals in the medical and scientific fields.

    June 8, 2012 at 3:18 pm | Reply
    • readthebook

      "Most immigrants today are poor and need public assistance."
      Not true

      June 8, 2012 at 3:39 pm | Reply
      • DAN WEIMER

        It is the latino immigrants that are killing us. The majority are not educated and must work cheap or under the table so they can collect welfare. Not to mention they breed like rabbits that we also pay for. I own a business in chicago and some you people need to get out there in the thick of things just to see how messed this country is right now.

        June 8, 2012 at 4:11 pm |
  11. boohowdy

    We need immigrants who will integrate.

    June 8, 2012 at 3:18 pm | Reply
  12. joe schmo

    We need LEGAL immigrants.

    June 8, 2012 at 3:18 pm | Reply
  13. Bob

    "Why is it still deemed acceptable to discriminate against people on the basis of where they happen to have been born?"

    What type of retorical nonsense is that question? When did Mr. Philippe Legrain stop beating his wife?

    Well Mr Philippe Legrain, to answer your retorical question maybe you should ask other countries why they limit immigration and why it is a person's right to benefit from living in one place long enough to have a vested intrest in it?

    Maybe you should do some more thinking about your childish question.

    June 8, 2012 at 3:18 pm | Reply
  14. Michael39

    People by & large are NOT DISCRIMINATING ON WHERE PEOPLE WERE BORN. Why is it so hard for the media to grasp this? – The ISSUE IS WHETHER THEY ARE ENTERING AND LIVING IN THE COUNTRY LEGALLY, because of the underlying effects it is having on the labor system.
    Because EVERYONE knows this is an issue of cheating legal citizens of ALL ethnic & cultural backgrounds out of a FAIR WAGE with EMPLOYEE RIGHTS. It is an attempt to legitimize "almost slavery" and exploitation of illegal immigrants who HAVE NO RIGHTS.

    June 8, 2012 at 3:19 pm | Reply
    • ME

      Explain the lack of concern regarding the Canadian border, then.

      June 8, 2012 at 4:11 pm | Reply
    • ME

      As citation:


      June 8, 2012 at 4:12 pm | Reply
  15. Texas16

    This article is not written by Zakaria; it shows some make comments not knowing much.

    June 8, 2012 at 3:19 pm | Reply
  16. No more Immigration

    To all you liberals out there;

    Besides maybe brazil, name 1 successful black or hispanic country?

    June 8, 2012 at 3:20 pm | Reply
  17. wolfpackbob

    Hey CNN. America has always needed immigrants, LEGAL immigrants.

    June 8, 2012 at 3:20 pm | Reply
  18. chris

    We need immigrants, but we need to be very selective about who we let in. The days when we where a vast untamed country are over. I live in Tennessee and we now have a large group of Arab immigrants that came here from the refugee camps of Iraq. A lot of these people are illiterate not just in English but Arabic to. They live in government housing and survive on government aid .This life style is normal to them because it is how a lot of people lived in Iraq under Saddam (it is a common way for dictators to stay in power, make the people totally decedent on the state for everything) They live in their own enclave and seem to have no intention of assimilating into our country. I read write and speak Arabic but because I am white they assume I don't and will often speak in the open. I very much enjoy Arab people their culture they food and their sometimes strange since of humor, but the outright racist things a lot of them say when they don't think you can understand them makes me believe that we let a lot in whom we should not have.

    June 8, 2012 at 3:21 pm | Reply
  19. dave k

    Sure we do – I kind of like having to press 1 for English anyway. But go ahead and call me uninformed anyway all you enlightened ones. Diversity is strength, right?

    June 8, 2012 at 3:21 pm | Reply
  20. Dusty2701

    Nee immigrant citizens swear alligance to the United States, but they are not trusted by native born Americans because they hold dual citizenship, so their loyalties are split between their native born country and their adopted country (US). They are "quasi" Americans...they are here for the economic benefits, but go home to their native country when the going gets tough, e.g., commit a crime, divorce and take their US born children back to their native land, blow up the World Trade Center, etc. Having dual citizenship should not be allowed and holding more than one passport should be a felony.

    June 8, 2012 at 3:21 pm | Reply
    • ES

      Dusty, I look at it this way. The country I was born in is my mother. it is not perfect, but has many wonderful aspects. You cannot chose who your mother is. US is like the wife/ husband, you enter into the relationship as an adult , it is a choice and if you are a decent person you will not betray it. But you cannot ask a normal human being to denounce their mother. This is not how human phsyche works. Anyone who would do that is not normal, and you definitely shouldn't give those people citizenship. You can denounce a government, a group of people, denouncing the country of your birth is sick. But if you are honorable you'll never betray your new country either.

      June 8, 2012 at 3:39 pm | Reply
  21. Frogz

    My family has been in America since before colonial times. I am a direct descendant of William Penn who founded the state of Pennsylvania. My great grandfather 10x fought for his countries freedom in the revolutionary war, my great grandfather 7x fought to defend the union in the civil war. My great grandmother was a Cherokee Indian native to this country. My grandpa fought his way through hell to protect this countryfrom the Nazi's, my dad fought his way through Vietnam. You can't get much better American lineage than that. It boils me that people who jump the fence or come over here in boats come to freeload off of our country and get the same rights and freedoms for doing basically NOTHING. Sometimes even thinking they are better than US natives. Why should be constantly put up with you if you have nothing to contribute to this country beyond burdening the governments financial services? Personally I think the borders need to be closed.

    June 8, 2012 at 3:22 pm | Reply
    • ES

      It is apparent that you think that you are better than others because of who your ancestors are. This is the thinking nobility has, which is very contrary to principals on which USA was built on. EIther you stand on you own merits or you don't. I have some intresting ancestry , some where slaves, some were rich and famous, but they have nothing to do with who I am.

      June 8, 2012 at 3:30 pm | Reply
  22. carljr

    Down the ages, it is the inclusive, diverse and democratic societies that prosper and the non-inclusive, racist autocratic societies that fail. Read your history. America has prospered above all others because by it's very nature it was built by the inclusion of new people and ideas over its history.

    One other thing...on your foolish article that liberals want a king. If you believe democracy then you work toward inclusion and diversity. You build a vibrant society that depends on and needs all its citizens. On the other hand if you want dictatorship you build the smallest base of loyal supporters you can, you find a constant sources of cash and you make sure you're positioned to pay off those supporters. Kind of the like the Romney campaign.

    ...so who wants a dictator, Mr. Obeidallah. I think our Republican friends are much further down that road for the 2012 election.

    June 8, 2012 at 3:23 pm | Reply
  23. Jacob

    People need to quit crying for themselves about being out of a job, the same people crying cry about people getting hand outs; well an occupation is no hand out so go out their and attain one...I work two unfavorable jobs while attending college(which I am paying for) and I find it funny that people feel sorry for themselves... Go out and be a real adult and handle your responsibilities, take care of your family and your bills don't be weak and cry about it.

    June 8, 2012 at 3:23 pm | Reply
  24. RichWW2

    I think a majority of the people don't mind immigration. I think a majority of the people do not like ILLEGAL immigration. This article fails to differentiate the views people have of illegal immigrants from the views people have on legal immigrants. I know lots of people that have immigrated here legally and do like like illegal immigrants. This article lumps them into one category which is incorrect.

    June 8, 2012 at 3:23 pm | Reply
  25. Degrin

    The sad truth of it is that if these people were allowed to have the opportunities and join the first world, then it would put such a stress on our resources that our current way of life would become unsustainable. We have finite resources, and even for the "privledged ones" these are starting to run out.

    June 8, 2012 at 3:23 pm | Reply
  26. I-man

    Sure we should take in immigrants. But like many smart countries, we should do a means-test for them all. What that means is you must have enough money to support yourself and/or a trade that we need.

    June 8, 2012 at 3:23 pm | Reply
  27. Jbb4real

    would you stock your ranch with more livestock than it could sustain?

    June 8, 2012 at 3:24 pm | Reply
  28. Rob Mohr

    Why is it acceptable to assume that if you want to live in the US you can just go there and not have to obey the laws there?

    I can't go to Australia and get rights there as a citizen. I can't go to Germany and get rights there as a citizen. Why shouldn't people that want rights here as a citizen be required to actually become a citizen?

    June 8, 2012 at 3:25 pm | Reply
  29. Dennis H.

    We need LEGAL immigrants, NOT illegal immigrants. The latter are just 'takers'. They have no interest in contributing, understanding our laws and culture, or what we are about. They just want to transplant their cat-eating, little girl snipping, violent, voodoo, honor killing thievery to THIS land, because they have run out of resources in their own.

    LEGAL immigrants, who have applied for, strive for and deserve to be American CITIZENS, and have properly migrated to this country should be more than welcome. They WANT to be part of us, not the caretakers of some satellite office of Port Au Prince.

    The illegals' lobby has attempted to swipe the distinction, claiming there is no difference between the two groups. Yeah, right. Legal immigrants are not rule breakers, but followers. They are not in the unemployment lines, of the welfare rolls or begging for 'justice' at every turn. They are users and abusers.

    The Legal Immigrant who has become a citizen is one of US. The illegal immigrant is one of them. Why is this so hard to understand? We have allowed congress to give away American citizens for free before, to the Puerto Ricans, with disastrous effects. They have no interest in America, or becoming American. Why should they buy the cow when they get the milk for free? I met a Puerto Rican 'teacher' who no idea what Pearl Harbor Day was related to. And THEN she acted insulted when I asked her where she had taken American History (she hadn't). Legal immigrants applying for citizenship want rid of their native lands and their shortcomings. When you give away citizenship or anything else in life, it has no value. When you earn it, it's precious.

    June 8, 2012 at 3:26 pm | Reply
    • Josh Jaye

      Dennis H. : The people in this nation, are followers, who need to be told what to think. Our Govt tells them that we NEED illegals, so they believe it. The Govt tells them that the president is creating jobs......they believe it. Barry Obama tells them ANYTHING....they believe it. Too much media influence. MSNBC is a BAD source for "news". What kind of idiot would believe anything Chris Matthews says? CNN (communist news network) is no better. Have to go to sources OUTSIDE this country, to learn about what's going on here. A sad situation.

      July 8, 2012 at 2:51 am | Reply
  30. Dav1

    What a worthless article and a bunch made facts.This typical CNN(communist News Network) reporting.Reinvent history.

    June 8, 2012 at 3:26 pm | Reply
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