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. Lydia

    Lionhart....If we now rank low in math & science maybe dumbing down our schools to accomodate illegals who refuse to speak English has something to do with that.

    June 8, 2012 at 3:37 pm | Reply
  2. Scott B

    Our current unemployment rate suggests we do NOT need any immigrants. This isn't a racist issue. It's merely protecting our own over others in another country.

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

    "So why is it still deemed acceptable to discriminate against people on the basis of where they happen to have been born?"
    huh? Who deems it acceptable?

    June 8, 2012 at 3:37 pm | Reply
  4. ProudAmerican

    America is immigration without it there would be no America. legal immigration is welcome and needed ...key word is legal. Borders, Language and culture is what makes any country and America is no different. Come on over and enjoy what America has to offer just make sure you follow the laws of the country and do your best to assimilate into the American culture. I will never leave the US to another country unwilling to learn their language and try to understand their culture and Americans expect the same from the people coming to us for a better life.

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

      I disagree with assimilate. That in itself reflects bigotry and short sightedness. The reason we need immigrants is because we need a different perspective on things. Dont tell me you wanna eat burger king and mashed potatoes all the time because the immigrants were forced to assimilate. reconsider your statement.

      June 8, 2012 at 4:04 pm | Reply
  5. Pat

    We'll take the hard-working, industrious and entrepreneurial if you'll take of all the scofflaws, malcontents and deadbeats who do nothing but consume our resources, make babies and demand that ballots continue to be printed in languages other than English.

    June 8, 2012 at 3:39 pm | Reply
  6. we need landscapers

    because we need lawn care folks and maids. thats why cnn

    June 8, 2012 at 3:40 pm | Reply
  7. kgt

    I've improved the quote slightly...

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

    June 8, 2012 at 3:40 pm | Reply
  8. Mike Gentile

    Illegal's take American Jobs!!! Are employment rate is very high. But people at CNN want us to let the hole world in to compete against the American Worker who works more hours than any Westerized worker in the World.This is why people don't watch CNN anymore. The averge american is against illegal immigration and CNN is for it.

    June 8, 2012 at 3:41 pm | Reply
  9. Joe

    Immigrants, yes. Illegal aliens, no.

    June 8, 2012 at 3:41 pm | Reply
  10. GH

    I do have concerns about whether our country's already stressed infrastructure can handle more immigrants. We're already at a place where we don't have enough resources to employ, feed, clothe or house any more people on our soil. That said, some of the same fervents who vehemently rail on against immigration are the same ones who oppose those organizational groups catering to certain cultures because "they divide the country." Oh, and racist talk doesn't? Please. These are social control-freaks who want everything their way, and life just doesn't work that way.

    June 8, 2012 at 3:41 pm | Reply
  11. Lydia

    Yes We do need legal immigrants but not illegal...they have no right to be here.

    June 8, 2012 at 3:42 pm | Reply
  12. bob

    300 000 000 the usa needs more people ? Lol why don’t you be honest and say you need more well educated entrepreneurs and less unskilled labour uneducated

    June 8, 2012 at 3:42 pm | Reply
  13. me

    How about we discriminate on what you bring to the table. I don't want your sick your poor and your hungry. I want your inventors your doctors your engineers, people who can bring something of value with them other than another mouth on the welfare line.

    June 8, 2012 at 3:42 pm | Reply
    • dkew09

      wheres the 'like' button

      June 8, 2012 at 3:44 pm | Reply
    • zaphed


      June 8, 2012 at 4:06 pm | Reply
  14. kenhbradshaw

    I love some of your arguments, but they are painted with too broad of a brush. Lets keep immigration legal and encouage it and the benefits that come with it. But lets reduce illegal immigration and the drains on services and the problems that come with it. If there a jobs that mostly immigrants do that help everyone, then good. Just come in the front door and not the back door.

    June 8, 2012 at 3:43 pm | Reply
  15. M. Jahns

    Sure we need immigrants. Rich ones. Many countries require people to have a given net worth, pass a physical and have a job prior to entry so they do not cause a drain on social services. It's time the US woke up to the fact that we're broke and need to do the same.

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

    The problem is not legal immigration. The government has a right and responsibility to protect its borders and allow whom it wants in. The problem is illegal immigration. I happen to know there are huge percentages of illegal immigrants in our prisons which are costing the tax payers money. Then you have the feds hamstringing the local police and states from doing the job that the feds CLEARLY can't do.

    It is time to stop being sympathetic to illegal immigrants. It is time to look at them as they are, federal felons. To put in comparison, another federal felony is bank robbery. So if we put the two side by side, think how we would pursue and punish a bank robber and start doing the same to illegal immigrants.

    June 8, 2012 at 3:44 pm | Reply
  17. Luek

    Yes, America is desperate for immigrants however those immigrants that America is desperate for should be white.
    Present nonwhite immigration is turning the US into a 3rd world sewer. It is setting the climate for an internal civil war.

    June 8, 2012 at 3:44 pm | Reply
    • Parkerman

      Agree, many new immigrants except a lot less for themselves and lower standards overall. It will just mean disaster to our society.

      June 8, 2012 at 3:46 pm | Reply
    • HZ

      on average, Asian immigrants have MUCH higher education standards and hold high position/salary than your average white immigrants or white in this country in general.
      "immigrants must be white" my a**, can't believe this kind of racism still exist in this country

      June 8, 2012 at 3:53 pm | Reply
  18. Parkerman

    Who said we didn't need immigrants? Immigrants are needed, illegal immigrants are not.

    June 8, 2012 at 3:44 pm | Reply
  19. Joe

    What a laughable straw man by a truly ignorant writer. Speaking as a conservative, it's not the skin color, it's not the place from which one came, it's the method. I love legal immigration. I'm all for it. Being against ILLEGAL immigration, not wanting ILLEGAL immigrants to vote is not discrimination. It's called following the rule of law. The depths of ignorance in the liberal mind is a truly fascinating thing.

    June 8, 2012 at 3:45 pm | Reply
  20. Mel

    I live in a city that actually will pay legal immigrants with degree's to buy a home here. I certainly don't believe in discrimination however if someone is going to come to American then they need to contribute and not live off of others backs. Too many are doing just this and alot of American's are suffering because of it.

    June 8, 2012 at 3:45 pm | Reply
  21. TDiddy

    fareed is a pig!!!

    June 8, 2012 at 3:45 pm | Reply
  22. anticomm

    do we need Barracks Communism?

    June 8, 2012 at 3:45 pm | Reply
  23. Rob

    CNN does not like views opposing their liberal propaganda agenda.

    June 8, 2012 at 3:45 pm | Reply
  24. Chris

    There is a vast gulf between LEGAL and ILLEGAL immigration. As far as I know, I don't know any illegal immigrants, I don't know if they are a drain on our country's resources. What I do know is our country NEEDS those indviduals with a vision, with the drive to work for success and to achieve the American Dream. By achieving this dream, they will take others along with them. As a nation, we need to be more selective about those individuals we allow to enter our country – we can no longer afford to let in the uneducated, those unable or unwilling to support themselves and those who are willing to take and not give back. We cannot continue to allow illegal immigrants to jump ahead of those who have followed our rules and requirements in order to gain citizenship. The idea of allowing illegal immigrants an easy path to citizenship because they are here and have been for years is WRONG! If we allow illegals to take shortcuts, why bother to have any system for immigration at all?

    June 8, 2012 at 3:46 pm | Reply
  25. karek40

    Does America really need more immigrants? We don't seem to have enough jobs to keep the current number of citizens employed, how will more immigrants help this problem. Our health care system is currently broken and those without insurance use the emergency rooms at our hospitals and the rest of us pay for their treatment, so how will more immigrants help this problem. Our public education suffers due to bilingual problems, how will more immigrants help this problem. Medicade expenses continue to rise, how will more immigrants help. The U.S. is becoming a 2nd rate nation not due to immigration deadlock but to excessive spending. Notice China is well on its way to becoming the worlds superpower – are they allowing immigration. Do you suppose there is a correlation between those facts.

    June 8, 2012 at 3:46 pm | Reply
  26. harpman

    I know very few people who are against legal immigration. What is it about the word "illegal" that many people don't see to understand. It the US wants to open it's borders, it can make it legal. Now is it not legal. Get real.

    June 8, 2012 at 3:46 pm | Reply
  27. Tom

    I don't have a problem with where people are born. I DO have a problem with people who come here in violation of immigration laws and I DO have a problem with an administration that ignores the problem and one that panders to these people for political purposes

    June 8, 2012 at 3:46 pm | Reply
  28. Outdoor John

    We should revert to where immigrants have a citizen sponser, who is totally resposible for the immigrant – as an example if they commit a crime, the sponser is jointly criminally responsible, if they need welfare the sponser pays, if they don't pay their bills, the sponser is jointly liable – this is how it worked before and it worked back then. The immigrants will become our strength as a nation, as they did before. This is how my grandparents came over.

    June 8, 2012 at 3:47 pm | Reply
  29. kgt

    What Fareed fails to distinguish here is the difference between immigration, which Americans firmly support by a huge margin, and ILLEGAL immigration. We all know that America needs immigrants and that immigration is a benefit to our society. What we also all seem to agree on is that ILLEGAL immigration is a problem. There are reasons that immigration is a controlled and restricted process. You cannot simply open the floodgates and let everyone in who wants in. By doing this you destroy the country. Immigration needs to happen in a limited manner, modulated by the rate at which assimilation into the country and culture is occurring. Immigration without assimilation is invasion.

    June 8, 2012 at 3:48 pm | Reply
  30. Blooddraken

    It is not immigration in and of itself that we conservatives have a problem with (other than a few fringers we do our best to ignore). It is ILLEGAL immigration we have a problem with.

    June 8, 2012 at 3:48 pm | Reply
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