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. ME

    All we need to have here is accountability. I'm sure a vast majority of the so-called "illegal" immigrants are perfectly fine to come here. Problem is, by their very nature there's no "vetting" process by which we can weed out the genuinely problematic ones - criminals, spies, nutcases, terrorists, and welfare addicts being the vast majority. Our obsession with job protection is making it easy for genuine undesireables to cross.

    June 8, 2012 at 3:26 pm | Reply
    • Dav1

      Ilegal imagrants are criminals ,and should be treated as such.

      June 8, 2012 at 3:30 pm | Reply
      • ME

        ... So are people who litter and jaywalk. There are appropriate punishments for these activities; your post suggests you're looking for something more... draconian?

        June 8, 2012 at 4:00 pm |
  2. SpatiallyMapped

    Everybody but extreme bigots is FOR immigration. We are all immigrants or the descendants of immigrants. Where there's a problem is with ILLEGAL immigration. Why is the difference so hard to understand? ILLEGAL versus LEGAL. ILLEGAL versus LEGAL. ILLEGAL versus LEGAL.

    June 8, 2012 at 3:27 pm | Reply
  3. dkew09

    there are plenty of cases where cetain imigrants or minorities get jobs because the business needs to fill a quota even if the individual is more qualified. Since when does the united states have to just all of the sudden be perfect. try going to any other country as a white, black, or mexican american and see if you can even get a job scrubbing floors. i highly doubt it and dont even bother trying to get a cooporate job as an american in another country. I must say beggers cant be choosers.

    June 8, 2012 at 3:27 pm | Reply
  4. Bill Lomax

    Count me among those who welcome *legal* immigrants of all kinds. Anyone who works hard, isn't a criminal and pays their taxes adds value to our society whether they're an intellectual or a common laborer. Others have also pointed out that we have plenty of people here already (citizens AND aliens) who don't meet that minimum benchmark, so why punish folks willing to pursue the American dream just because they aren't here yet? Weed out the terrorists and criminals and we're no worse off than before - or in the case of people like Sergey Brin, we're *better* off.

    June 8, 2012 at 3:27 pm | Reply
  5. ocwa80

    The US assimilates immigrants better than almost any country in the world and certainly better than Western Europe where Mr. Legrain hails from.

    A fresher way of looking at this would be to ask how the US can increase the birthrate of the native population who can afford children through more generous maternity/paternity leave and other benefits.

    June 8, 2012 at 3:28 pm | Reply
  6. anon

    great story, however, BREAKING NEWS!!! Explosions in rapid succession at Ft. Wayne Indiana Nuke plant!

    June 8, 2012 at 3:28 pm | Reply
  7. John

    In this article the writer lays no proof of discrimination, just his idea of the presence of it. I don't understand when stopping illegal immigration had become discrimination. Obama's administration has expelled more illegal immigrants than any other president, but no one is calling him discriminate. This is the biggest waste of ink I have ever seen.

    June 8, 2012 at 3:28 pm | Reply
  8. granger

    this is such a bonehead article. It could be summed up quite simply with: "Immigration: YES! Illegal Immigration: NO

    Where our common sense in this nation?

    June 8, 2012 at 3:28 pm | Reply
  9. HZ

    American was/is/will ALWAYS be an immigrants country,
    The problem is thos illegal immigrants who live on welfare like obama's relatives, deportation process should give priority to those illegally receiving welfare. They entered the country illegally, they don't contribute to the country and they live on tax payer's money, they should be immediately removed from this country once found out.
    yet because obama... his relatives are all happily live in this country ILLEGALLY ON TAX PAYER MONEY.

    P.S. Obama was NOT BORN POOR, HE WAS/IS AS ELITE AS YOU CAN GET, he was raise by a bank president grandmother and his mother holds Ph.D, he went to schools you obama supporters CAN NOT EVEN HOPE to afford.

    June 8, 2012 at 3:28 pm | Reply
  10. Brandon

    I am all for immigrants, as long as they come here legally. My wife is an immigrant, I had to pay like you wouldnt beleive to ensure she was legal to be here. I really cant figure out why so many people have a problem understanding the work "Illegal"

    June 8, 2012 at 3:28 pm | Reply
    • lee

      so what those who are poor can just rot? you sir will have to answer to whatever higher power you believe in for that level of selfishness and cruelty.

      June 8, 2012 at 3:33 pm | Reply
      • dkew09

        lee the united states is not a refugee camp nor is it jesus christ. what do you expect? we are over 14,000,000,000,000 dollars in debt. we cannot afford to be global philanthropists. we aren't saying poor people should rot in hell you just can't come here illegaly.

        June 8, 2012 at 3:50 pm |
  11. rkolker

    II disagree with the author's premise, but after reading the comments, I think what we need to do is throw out all the people here and find new ones.

    Immigration is a complex issue, and I think our current system is broken, but the solution isn't more or fewer immigrants, or more or fewer temporary workers, but determining what our goals are when we let people in (or don't let them in) and then implementing a system which successfully meets those goals.

    June 8, 2012 at 3:29 pm | Reply
  12. smitvict

    Legal or Illegal immigrants? Talking heads like Fareed don't seem to be able to tell the difference. And they want us NOT to see that slight of hand.

    June 8, 2012 at 3:30 pm | Reply
  13. planetx

    I was born in America stay the fock where you are! I can't take this sh– anymore

    June 8, 2012 at 3:30 pm | Reply
  14. B

    I don't really understand the constant references to Obama's aunt and uncle.... he isn't them. I don't really understand how whatever illegal activity his aunt or uncle did or didn't do really has any baring on Obama's life. He isn't responsible for them... Are you responsible for what your aunt or uncle do?

    June 8, 2012 at 3:30 pm | Reply
  15. SheilaKA

    Yes, we need immigrants. However, we need to have orderly and LEGAL immigration...and we need to be more selective about people we let in. We should have a quota for refugees, the uneducated and indigent people and another quota for the professions we need, and a guest worker program for seasonal workers required. Other countries are selective...why can't we do the same?
    P.S. I wasn't born here, but came legally.

    June 8, 2012 at 3:30 pm | Reply
  16. George

    Can we trade? We have lots of 'critters', worthless people (don't work, don't vote, eat too much, lacking in personal hygiene, you know the type) that I would like to trade to the countries the immigrants are from. You know, high school drop outs, petty criminals, drug dealers, and basically lazy and stupid. How about 2 idiots for 1 immigrant?

    June 8, 2012 at 3:30 pm | Reply
    • planetx

      You probably hire illegal immigrants and lowball American workers,your part of the problem

      June 8, 2012 at 3:38 pm | Reply
  17. Jacob

    In 1731 my direct ancestors(same last name as mind today) founded Bexar County... Thee only civilization that was present where Native Americans not indians ignorant ucks the white man gave them that name thinking they had land on the Indies, you no book reading morons...Be proud of the history that in-slaved people and did not acknowledge women as equal...I'm sure your proud.

    June 8, 2012 at 3:31 pm | Reply
  18. lee

    Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
    With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
    Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
    A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
    Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
    Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
    Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
    The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
    "Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
    With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
    Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
    The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
    Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
    I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
    Emma Lazarus, 1883
    remember this you xenophobic SOBs this is what america is really about!

    June 8, 2012 at 3:31 pm | Reply
  19. Flatpicker

    The should be arrested and deported. They are not required to pay taxes, have car insurance, and receive free money and welfare. I was in an accident with one. The firsts words they said were speaky no English. The Officer just let them go. NO LIcense and NO insurance. Pathetic.

    June 8, 2012 at 3:31 pm | Reply
  20. desai

    It is understood that to manage our vast economy and vast area,we need more people.It is also understood that this manpower need is not going to be satisfied through our local production[low birth rate] so we need to import people through immigration.There are three main arguements against immigration from conservative groups:[1]The immigrants become monetary burden on the already burdened system.[2]They tend to live in gheto and there by change the culture and look of the area.[3]They tend to vote for liberal parties[democrats] there by they shift the balance of power.
    A compromise can be reached where these new arrivals can not get government benefits or participate in electoral process for fixed amount of time.

    June 8, 2012 at 3:31 pm | Reply
  21. mal

    This article is just more social agenda. Trying to make we Americans take pity on those less fortunate. Last I recall, the citizens of the United States donated more money per capita than any other nation to charities all over the world. It was the US who led efforts in every major natural disaster in recent history. The author can try to speak of his high and mighty intentions about how someone in another country doesn't get the benefits as a slacker does here in the US, but guess what, That still happens here as well. Everyone wants to point their fingers at the US and say we're not doing enough to help the rest of the world. We're doing too much in one part of the world and not others. Well guess what Skippy, it's called life. And for 99% of us, it's not fair. Just because some bimbo with the initials K. K. can make millions being a moron on T.V. while the rest of us work our butts off to rake by a living, that's life!!!! There's only one person responsible for the situation that they are in and that's one's self. I'm sorry if you were born in Niger, Lybia, Morocco, et. al, and it's hard for you to come to the US unless you're very talented in something or have a Ph.D. But that just means you need to work the best you can to make your situation better.

    June 8, 2012 at 3:31 pm | Reply
  22. LarryPopper

    I totally disagree. We need to deport Zakaria back to India along with all the other Indians and Pakis donig Information Technology jobs that Americans could be doing. Insourcing Indians and Pakis is not the answer. We do not need more immigrants. We need to deport the ones we have.

    June 8, 2012 at 3:32 pm | Reply
    • fastball

      Talk to your corporations that would rather make even MORE profit by out-sourcing jobs to places where they can pay a dollar a day.
      Talk to your young people to get off their cans and get decent educations so they can compete in a global marketplace. Why should I hire an illiterate American when there's a dozen university educated Canadians, Europeans or Asians applying for the same job?

      June 8, 2012 at 3:37 pm | Reply
      • LarryPopper

        Because if you don't hire Americans, we'll raise your tax rates 10,000 percent, sound good ?

        June 8, 2012 at 3:58 pm |
  23. NorCalMojo

    I can't believe people still believe this neocon globalism nonsense in 2012.

    How many more decades will we lose to this failed theory?

    June 8, 2012 at 3:33 pm | Reply
    • Scott B

      It's so embedded that Democrats 100% buy into it now. You mention anything about stopping jobs from being outsourced, people on both sides will scream about the free market. I guess we'll have to deal with it for 50-100 years until the rest of the world's quality of life has improved and ours has declined to the point that everyone is on an equal playing field.

      June 8, 2012 at 3:40 pm | Reply
  24. zaphed

    It does not matter. This nation is anti immigrant period. Only the children of immigrants may be accepted as americans. Dont ever forget the previous paragraph.

    June 8, 2012 at 3:33 pm | Reply
    • dkew09

      oh really? and to what other nation are you comparing? because there is no other country where americans can roam about freely

      June 8, 2012 at 3:39 pm | Reply
  25. n2it

    Statue of Liberty: Give me your tired, your poor,
    Your huddled masses, yearning to breath free,
    The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
    Send these, the homeless, tempest tost to me,
    I lift my lamp beside the golden door.
    Just pay your taxes, please...

    June 8, 2012 at 3:34 pm | Reply
    • dkew09

      its called outsourcing, didn't you get the memo

      June 8, 2012 at 3:37 pm | Reply
  26. fastball

    Then don't make it so G-D hard to get a green card to get a job in the States!

    June 8, 2012 at 3:34 pm | Reply
  27. Sujith

    "Who would have guessed that the son of a Kenyan goatherd would end up as U.S. president?"

    Yea, we are seeing the result now. That was the guy we should have stopped getting in, then we wouldnt be in this situation!

    June 8, 2012 at 3:35 pm | Reply
    • PaulC

      Where were you from 2000 to 2008? Those were the good old days? What color is the sky in your world?

      June 8, 2012 at 3:40 pm | Reply
  28. Matt

    Speaking as someone who's going through the immigration process at present – I can tell you it's very broken. I'm from Canada, married to a US citizen, no criminal record and served in the military for 13 years, deploying to Afghanistan with a US Army unit twice. I also have a graduate degree from Cambridge. You'd think the process would be simple – but instead it's proven to be long, very expensive ($5K plus) and frustrating. Ridiculous

    June 8, 2012 at 3:35 pm | Reply
    • dkew09

      matt don't blame america for having a rigorous process blame the 10,000 hispanics that cross the border illegaly everyday oh and this thing called 911. maybe you've heard of those things

      June 8, 2012 at 3:42 pm | Reply
    • DamianKnight

      I feel ya, Matt. My wife is Canadian (Go Leafs!) as well and it was a struggle going through it. We did it in 2007. We hired a lawyer though and he helped expedite the process, but yes, it is frustrating. Now she is a contributing member to this society, already beginning the process of becoming an American citizen and has never once been a drain on the U.S.

      I don't think legal immigrants (like yourself) are the problem.

      June 8, 2012 at 3:48 pm | Reply
    • Luek

      Matt I just bet you are white. Am I right? Jesus couldn't get a green card in America if he is white! But every illiterate non white goatherd from the turd world can come to the US and stay as long as they like and get priority in getting the "free stuff" that comes with immigration to the US.

      June 8, 2012 at 3:49 pm | Reply
  29. libdumb

    Yea, those that want to take advantage of an opportunity and want to work. Also LEGAL!

    June 8, 2012 at 3:36 pm | Reply
  30. LarryPopper

    Obv Phillipe Legraine is an immigrant and arguing for his own selfish goals. Deport him.

    June 8, 2012 at 3:37 pm | Reply
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