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. Jim

    Yet another truly stupid article, making it sound as if Americans are against immigration. The vast, vast majority are NOT, obviously. What we DON'T like is such huge amounts of ILLEGAL immigrants. My wife is legal alien, as I was in her country where we met. Why do we have to follow the rules, pay the money, renew, learn the language of this country and hers, and yet the millions upon millions of illegal aliens, mostly from Mexico, can simply come here, talk openly about it, get free education, get so MANY things in SPANISH for them, etc. etc. etc. They demand lower college tuition costs. Yet what about others in other countries who can't simply cross the border, whether risky or not? Why are we making thing so easy to live here for illegal aliens, yet legal aliens must tow the line. Even to cross into Canada now, I have to show a passport or something related to my passport. We're NOT again legal aliens, dunderhead author...we're against illegal aliens.

    June 8, 2012 at 3:57 pm | Reply
  2. i12bphil

    I still to this day don't understand why some people can't grasp the distinction between immigration and ILLEGAL immigration! They are NOT the same thing! Of course we need immigrants, but we need to have them come in through the proper channels! Walking up to a couture's borders and simply walking across is NOT the process of immigration. The purpose of going through the immigration process is so that background checks can be performed and people can be identified on record. You cannot simply waltz in unannounced! You are welcome here, but go through the correct and legal process.

    This story is another attempt to confuse the issue, direct enmity at people who oppose illegal immigration, and also mis-label and mis-identify the problem.

    June 8, 2012 at 3:57 pm | Reply
  3. Herb

    The entire history of "civilization" is a story of humans killing other humans to get their land and their resources.

    June 8, 2012 at 3:57 pm | Reply
  4. Mike

    I agree we need LEGAL immigrants, but the ILLEGAL ones need to be rounded up and shipped back to where they came from.

    June 8, 2012 at 3:58 pm | Reply
  5. Dan Green

    Yes, immigrants are extraordinarily important. Most immigrants are many times over more motivated to make something of themselves. It has always been this way, as we are country of immigrants. Not many people argue that point. What they argue about is how to deal with illegal immigration. I believe illegal immigrants also come here to work hard, but they do not contribute to the tax rolls. They take advantage of services that citizens pay for. Since we're not going to round up illegals, we should let them stay, work live, and tax them, but not grant them citzenship. We can make changes to how we bring in legal immigrants, and grant them citizenship, but not to illegals.

    June 8, 2012 at 3:58 pm | Reply
  6. Carrie

    I think if they speak ENGLISH then I do not have a problem with them, but when they come over here and expect us to make sure that they have the option of Spanish or English is crap!! You come over here you play by our rules period!! We had hail here recently and needed a new roof and most of the immigrants that were working on my roof did not speak English and that is really sad, and I bet they were not Legal!!!! THAT REALLY MAKES ME MAD, when a lot of people are out of work!!! WHAT IS WRONG WITH US, IS THE VOTE THAT IMPORTANT TO THE PRESIDENT, I guess.....

    June 8, 2012 at 3:58 pm | Reply
  7. A real American

    Yes yes, of course. America needs immigrants like India needs another 12 million residents.

    June 8, 2012 at 3:59 pm | Reply
  8. seigell

    We DON'T Discriminate "Because of WHERE a Person was Born", but rather DEMAND that "Persons Wanting to Come to USA both HONOR and OBEY Our Laws" !! And if that entails an undesirable Waiting List because the USA is So Desirable a Destination, GET IN LINE !!

    June 8, 2012 at 3:59 pm | Reply
  9. LarryPopper

    Dear CNN, no wonder you don't have any viewers anymore. Take opinion stories like this and shove them up your ass.

    June 8, 2012 at 4:00 pm | Reply
  10. Specks

    I'm for legal immigration. On another note, we should limit the immigration in this country. Personally I think 300 million people are a lot and I kinda enjoy my space. Too many people = too many opinions = too many conflicts = no Life, Liberty or pursuit of happiness....

    June 8, 2012 at 4:00 pm | Reply
  11. DAN WEIMER

    We need more immigrants like we need another hole in our head. 25% of our most recent immigrants are are on some kind of aid that i am tired of paying for. I understand we need doctors and other well educated people in our work force but most of these send all there money back to the countrys they came from which just kills our economy here. We need to educate the people we have here. The way it is now here only 10% of kids can afford to go to college and thats with some aid.

    June 8, 2012 at 4:00 pm | Reply
  12. Robert

    Philippe Legrain is another CNN editor who is an enemy of America and who speaks of treason. The man is either ignorant or he is evil, but probably both. You can't just let the whole world in without giving America away. Our wise fathers would only let immigration from countries that had a common cultural and social fabric, in order to maintain in America, the things that made us great. If you allow people from countries that hide terrorists to come here, they will settle in neighborhoods that will hide terrorists. If they come from a place with a poor work ethic, they will probably end up on welfare and food stamps. And if they come from a place where parents do not let their kids watch TV or read CNN, their children will certainly far excel American children in school. (of course the later folk would be good for us.) The point is, people like Philippe Legrain and the rest of the CNN editors, those who have hijacked the American media, think they are wise, but they are complete and dangerous fools.

    June 8, 2012 at 4:01 pm | Reply
  13. Heinz 57

    Those of you in favor of sealing the borders immediately, lest America be overrun by non-Americans: if some random stranger struck up a conversation with you and happened to ask you what your heritage is, what would be your answer? If you would say "oh, I'm Polish" or "Scottish" or "Swedish" or whatever, the case may be, you have absolutely no leg to stand on. If your ancestors had stayed in Poland, Scotland, Sweden or wherever, YOU would be Polish, Scottish or Swedish (LITERALLY, not in name only as many of us are after several generations in America). That's right: you, Mr/Mrs. Close-the-Bordesr-Now, have your hardworking, aspirational IMMIGRANT forefathers to thank for being the American that you are, and two, three, or ten generations from now the antecedents of the current group of immigrants will be just like you: Americans that can trace their lineage to another land which has absolutely no bearing on their AMERICAN life in the here and now. If you don't want to be complete hypocrites (and I have my doubts about that), you'll stop telling people that you're Polish or Scottish or Swedish, because you're NOT. You're American and it makes no sense for you to self-identify with a culture/region/language you know nothing about and never have since your great-great-great grandaddy came to America and put forth a first genration American family of his own. Every single one of our families (unless you are purebred Native American) have come from other parts of the world at some point in the last few hundred years, so who are we to decide when America

    June 8, 2012 at 4:02 pm | Reply
    • Norm

      My heritage is Native American Indian..........now what?
      I'm still trying to get you white people to speak the language instead of this English crap.

      June 8, 2012 at 4:07 pm | Reply
      • Heinz 57

        Thanks for proving my point!

        June 8, 2012 at 4:33 pm |
  14. Successful Immigrant

    I am an immigrant, brought her as a child by my parents. I have never been on welfare, worked through highschool and college, got A's, got a degree, got a graduate degree and am working a six figure job. I pay taxes (a lot) in both income and sales taxes.

    If I was not here, sure, someone would have gotten the job I have now. Someone may have gotten into the college seat I took. But I did better than some of those American born folks, some of whom ARE on welfare as they never tried to achieve anything and took things for granted. The argument is valid if every American born individual actually wants the job and did the hard work to qualify and be able to do the job.

    Immigrants are appreciative, knowing where they came from and that if they fail, they can go back to that difficult life. We succeed and work harder than those born here because we want to prove we belong here and know where not working leads you. So assumptions is that we will be a tax burden is false. Rather we are a benefit. Keep in mind my parents also worked when they got into this country (legally) and were never on the welfare system.

    Immigrants, if they are far better than anyone born in this country, should get the job. A job is not a birth right, it is an opportunity presented. Citizenship is something that should also be earned through hard work, community service, military service, etc. rather than granted on some geographical birthright.

    June 8, 2012 at 4:02 pm | Reply
  15. Jose

    2011 Rose Bowl Gold cup game 80,00 "Mexicans" booing the US national anthem.

    June 8, 2012 at 4:02 pm | Reply
    • Norm

      Big deal........who cares what Mexicans think...

      June 8, 2012 at 4:05 pm | Reply
  16. Sailor Joe

    I don't think anyone disagrees that we need immigrants. What we don't need it illegal migration. People need to stop spinning the argument about immigration

    June 8, 2012 at 4:02 pm | Reply
  17. Devon

    We do not neet anymore immigrants right now....and when we do, NO MUSLIMS unless they are apostates or non practicing liberal muslims...to invite practicing muslims into our countries is inviting disaster...Islam, like its cousins Nazism and Marxism, is a tolertarian brutal ideology that wishes to enslave non muslims....we must use wisdom in who we allow into the Free World or the free world will no longer be free!

    June 8, 2012 at 4:02 pm | Reply
  18. MC in TX

    This article is basically a bleeding-heart can't-we-all-get-along article mascarading as an argument for making America stronger. Ultimately I do believe that we do have a moral obligation to try to help the less fortunate but arguing that we, the rich countries, are responsible for making the world fair is garbage. Ultimately there will be inequities and punishing the rich simply for enjoying their good fortune is not reasonable.

    There is an important point related to this article that Legrain does not make but needs to be made. Immigrants have long been our lifeblood and continue to be so today. And it is not because of random geniuses like Sergey Brin showing up as children. It is because so many immigrants, both poor workers from Latin America and educated middle-class immigrants from Europe and Asia, have a work ethic that the U.S. lacks. We are increasingly becoming a nation of people who work long hours but are not truly driven like our forefathers were. Immigration has long helped to offset this moral decline. But frankly, the moral decline will ultimately do us in if we do not reverse it. That's what ultimately did in the Western Roman Empire (they essentially outsourced their manufacturing to the East and their military protection to the Goths which led to their demise) and it will do us in if we don't reverse the trend.

    June 8, 2012 at 4:03 pm | Reply
  19. Legal Immigrant

    Finally someone nailed the issue but the dimwits have to speak so.....

    June 8, 2012 at 4:03 pm | Reply
    • schilaufer

      So because I am BITUS, it is acceptable to call me a dimwit? Is dimwit the new derogatory slang for us the gauchopines?

      June 8, 2012 at 4:07 pm | Reply
  20. schilaufer

    Philippe Legrain portrayed animosity towards those who are BITUS (Born In The United States). We all have bias. It appears, his is against all BITUS. My question to him would be, why is it ok to discriminate against all BITUS?

    And those who are not BITUS, I wish the best to you in your efforts to become (congratulate you on becoming) a tax paying citizen. This country has a lot of debt, and needs all the help it can get.

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

    what happens when a balloon gets too much air?

    June 8, 2012 at 4:03 pm | Reply
  22. wylie

    Do not confuse the issue. Immigrants are a very different matter than Illegal Immigrants. One is a person acting legally. The other is a criminal. Speaking for myself and many of my Conservative friends, we do not oppose immigration. We oppose Illegal immigrants. We used to be a nation of laws. Now we enforce them selectively to support political agendas.

    June 8, 2012 at 4:04 pm | Reply
  23. Ed in Houston

    I just cant stand listening to the Indians on CNN, especially about *equality* and "nevermind where they came from".

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

      They like to "caste" on us their own problems.

      June 8, 2012 at 4:08 pm | Reply
  24. Joy

    Libs r evil......you said it all!! I totally agree!! Right on!!! Joy in NJ

    June 8, 2012 at 4:05 pm | Reply
  25. blake

    The far left playing the race card again. Have you no shame? This isn't about discriminating against certain categories of people, it is about stopping illegal immigration which is a criminal offense.

    June 8, 2012 at 4:05 pm | Reply
  26. eva

    *Sigh* I am a legal Immigrant that came to this country from one of those "3rd world countries" you all refer to. I came to the US, primarily for college and to be independent of my parents. I did not come here dirt poor, despite the immpression some of you have. I have paid "my way" through college, a masters and doctorate degree, without loans or financial aid. People forget that legal immigrants do contribute to the society. I paid 5 times the in-state tuition rate for college. How do you think these colleges are still open?
    I am grateful that i was able to afford a world class education and I can now live "MY American Dream."

    I also, got married while getting my doctorate and I am on my way to being a fully naturalized citizen, but i pay my taxes. All the immigrants I know are educated, well-off and going to some of the best colleges and amongst the leadership of some off the most successful companies in the US today.

    And lets not forget, the US was built by IMMIGRANTs (To enter and settle in a country or region to which one is not native). please read up on your history. The Native Americans were the first occupants of what we now call the United States.

    June 8, 2012 at 4:06 pm | Reply
    • Susan

      And not one person on this board has voiced any frustration over your entry, so stop playing victim. Welcome, and thanks for doing it legally.

      June 8, 2012 at 4:10 pm | Reply
      • Eva

        I am not playing victim. This is how people display their ignorance. Someone blatantly said 3rd world country immigrants should not be allowed.... I am merely illustrating that immigration can be beneficial. Now as for illegal immigration... There needs to be some control around it.

        July 10, 2012 at 9:43 pm |
    • what

      You're a legal immigrant, paying taxes. Good for you. You aren't a victim here. The general population is.

      June 8, 2012 at 4:13 pm | Reply
      • Eva

        Can you re-read your post and translate? I do not understand you unfortunately. My case was purely to display that even immigrations from 3rd world countries can be beneficial for the US.

        July 10, 2012 at 9:46 pm |
  27. littleblackcar

    The "son of a Kenyan goatherd" who grew up to be President wasn't raised by the Kenyan goatherd. The Kenyan goatherd abandoned him to be raised by his independent, amibitious, self-educating, American mother. That argument is a bit of a wash.

    If people are so driven, they need to use their energy to improve conditions in their own countries so more of their own people can have opportunities.

    June 8, 2012 at 4:06 pm | Reply
  28. rosie

    Legal immigration is fine with me. If you come here to work and pay taxes that is fine with me. If not then get the he11 out of here.

    June 8, 2012 at 4:06 pm | Reply
  29. Jim

    Right. So this year in America the ratio of white babies born was less than those of non-white babies born, and you want to bring in more immigrants? You racist nazis, this is genocide!

    June 8, 2012 at 4:06 pm | Reply
    • bresson

      Wow, way to throw out a big gross word like genocide. Lest we forget that we are all immigrants to this land, that English is a foreign language from a foreign country, and while we're at it, real cowboys were mostly Mexicans and freed slaves who migrated west... that last one always makes me laugh when i drive through Texas.

      June 8, 2012 at 4:12 pm | Reply
  30. Susan

    Enough with the "up with immigration" pep rally. Fix the freaking system and people will stop complaining! I work for a doctor whose mother came here to America to get a heart transplant. While she came over legally, she came as "indigent" and received free health care and actually was set up to receive welfare. The kicker? She was an actual princess in her country (and from one of the richest families) and her three sons in the States were all successful doctors who had more than enough money in their pockets to pay for her. She got her free heart, and now splits the year between her home and in the States (3 months only). Do YOU have free healthcare?

    June 8, 2012 at 4:06 pm | Reply
    • bresson

      You do have free health care if you show up to a hospital with an eminent problem. The alternative has been deemed inhumane. This is the most expensive form of free healthcare we have to offer, where a more preventative method constantly denied.

      June 8, 2012 at 4:09 pm | Reply
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