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 (1,225 Responses)
  1. Regularguy22

    What a stupid inane article by LeGrain

    American strengths grow when legal immigrants move to the USA. There is no equivalence between legal and illegal immigrants. It is prejudicial to imply that people who are against illegal immigration are somehow against all immigrants

    June 8, 2012 at 3:48 pm | Reply
  2. btldriver

    If someone wants to come to the U.S., fine as long as they do it right. There is a process in place. It may be hard but it should be. It is a priveledge to come to the US not a right. If someone thinks you might not be someone we want here in the US then you don't get to come in. A great many people want to come here for opportunities that may not be afforded in their home country and based on that we should accept only those that will be productive. They may not be the brightest or the smartest but they shouldn't show up here expecting a hand out, we have too many of those as it is.

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

      Great comments btldriver. It's time to become patriots, not welfare workers for the world.

      June 8, 2012 at 3:52 pm | Reply
  3. realist

    "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."

    I get so sick of this. How long with Americans buy into this line of malarkey? If you are born in this country from parents who are naturalized citizens, you have a birthright. It's not based on if you're lazy or not, you're an American, and you should come first ahead of any immigrant that is here illegally, or hasn't been naturalized as a citizen yet. I'm tired of others telling us we're lazy, no good, and don't deserve the freedoms our ancestors fought and died for. How much longer are we going to listen to everyone out there who wants to steal our heritage away from us tell us we're lazy, or don't deserve our freedoms? Articles like this cry about how unfair we are, and how we owe the world. Our immigration laws are just so unfair. Why don't you write an article on countries like Mexico, where you go to prison if you are caught trying to enter the country illegally. You have no rights there if you are not a natural born Mexican.

    I'm sick of it. It's time to stand up against these creeps, and it's time to start taking it out on "news" sources like CNN. Their ant-American propaganda has got to stop. No wonder they're loosing ratings, audience, and respect by the minute.

    June 8, 2012 at 3:49 pm | Reply
    • Guest2012

      Birth right? To What? Yes, you have the birth right to work, but not low paying jobs, you want those high paying jobs... well go to school, get educated, get experienced, or hook up with some rich people. Yes, you have the right to become the President. Yes, you have the right to buy a house, a car, live where ever, do what ever. But NOOOOO, you choose not to work hard, not to go to school, not taking on those low paying jobs. Don't hate those who is willing to work in the fields, clean the toilets, and making $5.00/hr.

      June 8, 2012 at 3:54 pm | Reply
  4. Misha

    To answer the question...white supremacy....

    June 8, 2012 at 3:49 pm | Reply
    • Pax Americana

      Sieg Heil!! Sieg Heil!! Sieg Heil!!!

      June 8, 2012 at 4:03 pm | Reply
  5. Rozelle

    American is richer for the diversity of immigrants from all places PROVIDED that they share their culture while making every effort to assimilate – learn to speak English, learn to observe our holidays while teaching us about theirs, learn about and obey the laws, respect the mainstream culture and quit whining about being "offended", understand that it's not about YOU it's about US, all of us living together in peace and respect.

    June 8, 2012 at 3:50 pm | Reply
    • realist

      Absolutely right. Immigration is intended to add to the country, not take away. Our forefathers didn't intend for us to be a feeding trough for the world. Good comments.

      June 8, 2012 at 3:53 pm | Reply
  6. Guest2012

    Stop blaming the immigrants for the broken welfare system. How about the RICH American Citizens who is on public assistance, taking advantage of government healthcare and foodstamps? How about the American Citizens who's been on welfare for the last 3 generations? Before you want to point fingures... look at the root cause. We should require people on welfare to do job training and education. If they refuse or skip, we should decline them. My parents were immigrants, but never once did they use the public assistance. They both worked as custodians and provide for us all. It was difficult but they never gave up. I see too many NATURAL BORN US citizens who are too lazy to even fill out an application. Many immigrants will take any types of jobs as long as they pay. American Citizens wants to land that $60,000 job fresh off highschool or college and refuse to work otherwise.

    June 8, 2012 at 3:50 pm | Reply
    • realist

      Pay attention. We're not talking about legitimate immigrants, and we're not talking about hard working immigrants.

      June 8, 2012 at 3:55 pm | Reply
  7. Flatpicker

    readthebook – Are you clueless ? It doesn't have anything to do with where they are born. The point is are they here legally ? Do they pay taxes ? Do they have a drivers license. Do they have insurance. If all the above, they are welcome.

    June 8, 2012 at 3:50 pm | Reply
  8. Al

    I swear, I don't think most of the people who work in the media understand why everyone's is upset with current "immigration" policies. Almost all Americans support immigration and welcome it. However, they do not support people coming to (or staying in) the country illegally. This is a huge national security issue, and in many cases places a significant burden on American citizens who are forced to support these people (and their families) and/or have to compete against them for jobs, among other things.

    Rewarding these people with citizenship is not an answer; they knowingly and willingly broke federal laws and should be punished. If they want to become U.S. citizens, they are more than welcome to apply and follow the approved process. If they want to remain living in the U.S. and do not want to become a full fledged citizen, then let them apply for Green Cards. That also applied to students graduating from U.S. colleges.

    The other issue is with companies hiring foreign educated workers as opposed to U.S. citizens. If companies cannot find educated workers here in the U.S., the Government should work on improving the education system. Bring in foreign workers will not solve the problem.

    June 8, 2012 at 3:50 pm | Reply
  9. ANDRES IBARRA

    BECOUSE TODAY AMERICA IS CATHOLIC,,,,NOT CHRISTIAN TO LOOOSE MORE OF 13 YRS IN WARS OVERSEAS AND THE MORE TO COME,,,,,SPECIALLY FROM LATIN AMERICA,A SET BACK RELIGION VS POLITICIS !

    June 8, 2012 at 3:51 pm | Reply
    • John

      There are more Protestants than Catholics

      June 8, 2012 at 3:53 pm | Reply
  10. Paul

    The problem with immigration is those that support illegals confuse the difference between being her legit, and not.

    I am a 2nd generation meaning my grandparetns were immigrants and they came here for work, but were both english speaking citizens in less than 2 years.. (btw Im now 55)..
    My own mom is french and was a usa citizen in 3 years and english speaking in 2.

    Yet I know neighbors who have their 7yr old grandkids translating for them..

    If you want to be here legit, do the work Like all other legit immigratns did.

    If u dont, you are just as illegal as any real criminal.
    Even if you worked and saved here for decades.

    June 8, 2012 at 3:51 pm | Reply
  11. JJ

    Why does it not surprise me that people have already forgotten of those famous signs... "IRISH NOT WELCOME!" -ALL- of you came here illegally in the first place. ALL of the people who came through Ellis Island came here the same way. You have no moral standing to deny entry to other hard-working immigrants looking to provide for their families just because you don't like their language or color of their skin, period. Time for you to deal with it, and I suggest you deal with it NOW, because Hispanics will very soon before the majority in this country, and we promise to treat you with the same dignity and respect you treat =us=.

    June 8, 2012 at 3:51 pm | Reply
    • Blaise

      Great. Considering hispanics have the highest dropout rate among any ethnicity and the country they are leaving is a complete shambles, racked with corruption and violence, I can't wait for the "hispanics" to take over. Tell your illegal buddies to get the F out until I need a gardener.

      June 8, 2012 at 4:05 pm | Reply
      • Keith

        First generation children of immigrants have the highest achievement rates of students all across the country. Go spout your racist rants somewhere where they don't have access to real information.

        June 9, 2012 at 10:35 pm |
  12. libs_r_evil

    Immigrants are welcome in this great country, as long as they come here LEGALLY, and contribute positively to OUR society, and live by OUR laws! It is the ILLEGAL immigrants that come here and commit crimes, take advantage of all of our social programs and live off the system, and/or come here and try to force their own social or religious beliefs on us Americans that give all immigrants a bad name.

    June 8, 2012 at 3:51 pm | Reply
  13. Josh

    Hmmm!!... I wonder why some Americans are so opposed to legal immigrants...! After all, to consider, that all white Americans are basically the disgruntled bretheren of Brits...To start with, this country belongs to the Red Indians. Their ancestors were the original dwellers of this country. So, in essence, even white Americans are immigrants (rather illegal ones) who came from another country to this nation. So, why not live peacefully with all legal immigrants.....?

    June 8, 2012 at 3:51 pm | Reply
  14. Mike

    If government didn't give so much away (education, healthcare, welfare) & there were enough jobs, for the ENTIRE WORLD, then no one would care. But, that's not how things are. The author, Philippe Legrain is living in fantasy land & should probably lay off the weed a bit.

    June 8, 2012 at 3:51 pm | Reply
  15. John

    As long as they are legal immigrants I don't have a problem with them..

    June 8, 2012 at 3:51 pm | Reply
  16. Susan

    Please, for the love of God, why do journalists consistently butcher this issue? It's about those who did NOT emigrate legally! Please, please, please! Reading these diatribes from ignorant authors is 1) a waste of time and 2) tackling the wrong issue.

    June 8, 2012 at 3:52 pm | Reply
    • Jim

      Wow, you've said it EXACTLY! It's like so many of these "journalists" or whatever they are are trying to dissuade us from recognizing real immigrants, those who are here legally. Most reading this have NO idea about the process of immigration. My wife is a legal alien and I was an emigrant to her country long before we met. Articles like these are for the ignorant, the uneducated to believe in.

      June 8, 2012 at 4:00 pm | Reply
  17. ANDRES IBARRA

    13 YRS OF U.S.WARS TAKES A CIVILIAN AMERICANS TOLL ,,,,

    June 8, 2012 at 3:52 pm | Reply
  18. ANDRES IBARRA

    IT WINS THE WAR FOR TERROR.

    June 8, 2012 at 3:53 pm | Reply
  19. Bill

    Everybody is immigrant in this country, except Indians ....so thing twice before talk

    June 8, 2012 at 3:53 pm | Reply
    • Jim

      Oh, baloney! American Indians ALSO came here from far away. They're distantly related to my own children and my wife....Asia (and more specifically in most cases, parts of Mongolia).

      June 8, 2012 at 4:02 pm | Reply
  20. Pax Americana

    The only legal American of all Americans here are the Cherokees, Choctaws, Mohawks, Lakotas, Dakotas, Apaches, Comanches, Chumash, Juanenos and all indigenous native American tribes before the whites came and destroyed their land, culture and race.

    Everybody out and get lost! The true American Native Indians deserve this land and no other groups should be here.

    June 8, 2012 at 3:53 pm | Reply
    • Mike

      They should have fought harder.

      June 8, 2012 at 3:55 pm | Reply
    • Susan

      They came from somewhere, too. Get your facts straight.

      June 8, 2012 at 3:58 pm | Reply
    • Jim

      American Indians ALSO came here from extremely far away, genius. Just like white and black ancestors.

      June 8, 2012 at 4:03 pm | Reply
  21. ANDRES IBARRA

    AND KILL AMERICANS LIVING ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS IN TERORISM AND POVERTY BUT LOTS AND LOTS OF ATTENION AND PUBLICITY.

    June 8, 2012 at 3:54 pm | Reply
  22. kerberusII@aol.com

    check who ownes cnn and you will know their opinions on any matter

    June 8, 2012 at 3:54 pm | Reply
  23. Herb

    One thing is sure: Americans hate Americans who do not agree with them. There isn't conversation. It's venting and hating.

    June 8, 2012 at 3:54 pm | Reply
  24. Rob

    America already absorbs hundreds of thousands of legal immigrants every year. Always has, always will. It's the 20 million foreign nationals in this country illegally that need to be rounded up and kicked out of the country. We have millions of Americans searching for jobs and the Democrats in power don't care about them, they only want to keep potential voters on the government handout programs, in the hopes that there will be an amnesty program and they will be kept in power by being the ones controlling the handouts.

    June 8, 2012 at 3:54 pm | Reply
  25. ericwhyte

    America certainly needs more unemployed people. OPEN THE FLOOD GATES!

    June 8, 2012 at 3:54 pm | Reply
  26. Paul

    True that this country is a country of immigrants... But 'legal' immigrants.

    True also that till recent century, that it took little to be 'legit' but at least since the early 1900's the process has been known worldwide. Any other argument as to 'well our great grandparents were not legit' is irrelevant.

    Of course in my case, my greatgrandparents were not even citizens of any northamerica country.

    LEGIT LEGIT.

    For me its mostly about jobs, its a proven fact that illegals are taking even the good jobs away from citizens.
    And thats even union jobs that pay $20 to $50/hr. I worked at two places where they had them, till at least it was discovered...in one case Im the one who let teh company know about the illegals who were prompty fired and lost all beneifts and 401k immediately.

    June 8, 2012 at 3:55 pm | Reply
  27. dkew09

    its great how all the ppl in here that are complaining come from countries that had no means to support their needs. So they are free to complain about the shortcomings of america while enjoying a better way of living. God Bless America

    June 8, 2012 at 3:55 pm | Reply
  28. nishant022

    Very nice article. American immigration system is broke. U.S. govt allows millions of international students to acquire state-of-the-art education here in US Universities. Once these bright students graduate, govt does nothing to make these fresh graduates stay here so that they could contribute to the economy with brightest ideas they gained with their excellent education. Instead, govt forces them to go back to their native country.

    June 8, 2012 at 3:56 pm | Reply
  29. Tony

    Steps to fix immigration:
    1. Eliminate the welfare state.
    2. Deport illegals, they may never return.
    3. Allow any and all peaceful, freedom-loving, non-criminal individuals into the country.
    4. Any crime gets you deported. Otherwise you can live here indefinitely.

    June 8, 2012 at 3:56 pm | Reply
  30. Avg. Joe

    Immigration is necessary, albeit with limitations. We simply don't have the resources to continue taking on more and more immigrants, regardless of how worthy they may be. Compare the US to a ship with the capacity to hold 100 people. There's already 1,000 people on board and simply no room for any more without risk of sinking the entire ship. Sad, but true.

    June 8, 2012 at 3:56 pm | Reply
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