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. bresson

    Its deemed acceptable to keep them in a lower class. Its been that way in this country since the beginning, those with different skin color (or eye shape) bearing the brunt of it because of their increased inability to assimilate. Its human nature to some extent. Members of a group will tend to shun outside groups, even if its under the guise of "all men created equal".

    June 8, 2012 at 4:07 pm | Reply
  2. ash mirza

    Discriminatin will remain for ever, its not only in USA , but its all over the world....compair to other parts of tthe world USA is
    much much better.....thanks God....New immigrant when they should work hard....and make some thing out for them self and for the family............dont even think about walfare and food stamps...country i came from is INDIA. We dont even know what walfare is ....This is the only country allow you to.."YOU CAN BE WHAT YOU WANT TO BE"...So you better make the best out of it....Dont even think about discrimination...........My boss was" RED NECK" i wrok very hard and smart....in long run we became friends.................................he treated me better than a white co-worker.........BOTTOM LINE IS LOVE EVERY ONE HATE NONE. .....GOD BLESS AMERICA

    June 8, 2012 at 4:07 pm | Reply
  3. monte

    the u.s. is grossly over-populated as it is, not just with immigrants, but humans all together. We shouldn't be letting anyone in this country until the unemployment rate is 0%. On top of all that, this country is great only because our forfathers stood up to sweat shops, went on strike, and formed labour unions and demanded better living and working conditions and fair wages, many lost their lives in the prosses. Now, you can't even go on strike to stand up for your rights in the workplace without a bunch of immigrants breaking down the conditions that our forefathers fought for, by crossing the picket lines and going to work for $12 per hr at a job that is supposed to pay $30 per hr. then, these same dumb immigrants spewing the same crap out of their mouths about americans are too lazy to work. then, they refuse to learn our language and expect us to cater to there culture while they destroy ours.

    June 8, 2012 at 4:07 pm | Reply
  4. matt r

    I don't discriminate against people based on where they are born as long as they are here legally. What I do have a problem with is someone coming here illegally and expecting the same benefits as someone who has done it the right way. If you can explain the fairness in that system, well...good luck.

    June 8, 2012 at 4:07 pm | Reply
  5. Mona Rose Daniels

    When we have no jobs in the USA?
    Corporations seek slave labor thus immigrants whether legal or illegal.
    So you support slave labor over fair U.S. Citizen labor?
    So you support all corporate welfare at tax payer expense?
    So you support all corporate fraud; waste; and abuse
    at the expense of the "once upon a time" middle class?

    June 8, 2012 at 4:07 pm | Reply
  6. Norm

    Every nationality started in Africa....so no one can be called native born.

    June 8, 2012 at 4:08 pm | Reply
  7. DDDEB

    We would probably have a lot less idiots and anti-immigrants with these comments if my ancestors who were all here by 1800 had closed the doors!! Think about it people!!! A HUGE majority of you had ancestors that came in the last 100 yrs!! My ancestors made this a better country for you to come to and now you are laying down new rules!

    June 8, 2012 at 4:08 pm | Reply
    • Bob

      *teabags DDDEB* follow their example do something great to you lazy Obama lover! I suppose you want a hand out too?

      June 8, 2012 at 4:12 pm | Reply
      • what

        You're a real genius, buddy. Corporations have been bilking you and your wife (if you have one) out of your money (paychecks), and Obama is fighting for equal pay for your wife, has been fighting to get everybody healthcare so they don't have to sit in a ditch bleeding to death. He's fighting for you, and all you have to do is complain about him? What good has the GOP *EVER* done for you in your lifetime? Go on, name something. ONE THING. Idiot.

        June 8, 2012 at 4:16 pm |
    • what

      If you don't pay taxes in America, and live there illegally – i'm quite certain that 100% of the taxpayers will be happy to tell you to GTFO, and to be sure you let the door hit you several times in the back of the head on the way out. Everybody's a victim except you.

      June 8, 2012 at 4:19 pm | Reply
  8. what

    The USA needs to start taking care of it's own people, giving THEM jobs, instead of importing people from overseas – and letting the overseas imports get jobs automatically because of affirmative action etc. Come on prez, employ your own people FFS.

    June 8, 2012 at 4:09 pm | Reply
  9. Bob

    America needs immagrants? Are you high? Smoking a little to much dope these days? We have to many immagrants and mostly illegal immagrants. While in AZ vacationing I almost hit 3 of the illegals on the free way while they were border jumping. We need to close our borders keep them out... oh and toss out all of these cry babies here on H1B visas who want everything we got but pay no taxes. Send them back to durak durkastan.

    June 8, 2012 at 4:09 pm | Reply
  10. TK

    Why is everyone so full of hate? How do you all think your ancestors came to American? We are an imigrant nation.

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

      Right... we should just let everyone keep on coming here. We are full, we have plenty of problems with out more people coming here not getting working and squatting on government programs. Good thinking!! God you are dumb as dumb gets!!

      June 8, 2012 at 4:14 pm | Reply
  11. bill

    And while all u morons argue over this president, our country is being turned into a laughing stock. Maybe u should get off the internet and try to make a difference. He sucks. Anyone with a brain knows that. If u like his policy then move to Russia and enjoy socialism. Idiots

    June 8, 2012 at 4:10 pm | Reply
    • Ed in Houston

      you know people will vote for him just to see you guys squirm like this for another 4 years, right?

      June 8, 2012 at 4:12 pm | Reply
    • PaulC

      Not a well thought out post. Illegal immigration has been a problem for decades.
      Pres. Obama has deported more illegal immigrants in his 3 years then der Furher did in his 8 years.

      June 8, 2012 at 4:21 pm | Reply
    • Norm

      Poor bill....ever since Fox stopped allowing comments, he's been crying himself to sleep every night.
      There isn't anyone to tell him how and what to think and his tiny little pea brain is stuck in a 2008 propaganda loop.

      June 8, 2012 at 4:35 pm | Reply
  12. gorman howell

    Gee, I dunno...maybe it's the fact that we have 12% unemployment rate among able and willing Americans, that we don't feel so kindly to immigrants taking what jobs we have left. After all, after mechanization, outsourcing, H1-B visas, offshoring factories, what jobs are left for the rest of us? Isn't that what America is about–prosperity for ones who were born here, not just the ones who are coming here now?

    June 8, 2012 at 4:11 pm | Reply
  13. Iceback

    I see all the right wing wing nuts here, arguing about President Obama where the article is about immigration and letting well educated immigrants into our country to increase productivity in Engineering, Medical Sciences and IT Research. The majority of these people here posting don;t have Medical, Engineering or Computer Science degrees. All they spew is hatred and jealousy that they are the uneducated ones who feel their jobs are being stolen by educated immigrants who want a chance to better America and themselves. SO if you want to compete, go back to school and challenge yourselves to improving this great country, not spewing hatred.

    June 8, 2012 at 4:12 pm | Reply
  14. what

    Corporations love imported people. Since corps can't mess-over the general public, they'll bring in lower-cost workers from overseas – to gain big profits. Enough giving opportunities to those overseas, prez – take care of your own people!! The people who pay your paycheck!! IT ISN'T THAT DIFFICULT.

    June 8, 2012 at 4:12 pm | Reply
  15. K8

    I just took a walk by a contruction site and noticed 9 of the 10 people doing the manual labor were originally from another country. Immigrants are some of the hardest working people in America. The freeloaders undeservedly getting welfare generally think they are too good to get their hands dirty and that the government owes them a living. If someone is able to contribute to society and doesn't, immigrant or American, then they should be 'unwelcomed' to the melting pot.

    June 8, 2012 at 4:12 pm | Reply
    • bresson

      ...sounds made up

      June 8, 2012 at 4:15 pm | Reply
  16. Akahn

    Immigration is fine, what we don't need is ILLEGAL immigration. And if we could do a exchange, I think it would be great to send all of our inbred, cowardly, "Obama isn't American" failures we have here and get some decent people from around the world that actually have a brain to help America grow. We have too many uneducated scaredy cats that are so terrified of another religion or race that America has become a laughing stock of the planet. About time we get rid of that useless part of the population and swap them out for people that can actually think on their own and have courage...

    June 8, 2012 at 4:13 pm | Reply
  17. Texas16

    Some of the comments are ridiculous – implying "blacks and hispanics use food stamps and they are illegal." Folks, the welfare system is broken – whites, blacks, browns – all abuse it.

    June 8, 2012 at 4:13 pm | Reply
  18. schilaufer

    You know what is funny about this? We don't have a derogatory word for immigrants. But Philippe wants to start calling all the BITUS, "dimwits".

    June 8, 2012 at 4:13 pm | Reply
  19. riadakram

    Whew! I'm so glad CNN told me what to think on this issue. It's been nagging at me daily even though I'm struggling to keep my family afloat in these difficult times. I think it's a crock of but to think that of course makes one a xenophobe!

    June 8, 2012 at 4:14 pm | Reply
  20. sally

    I think America needs to limit immigration across the board. From what I've seen, companies are bringing foreigners in here to take American jobs because they can pay them less. Not only that, they are using foreign workers in their own countries to take American jobs. Many of these are technical jobs and we have educated Americans to fill those niches. Companies are simply trying to increase their profits at the expense of the American people. I'm sick of encountering "Peggy" on the phone and experiencing a real language barrier when I need technical advice and assistance.

    June 8, 2012 at 4:14 pm | Reply
    • Ranger01

      Right on Sally

      June 8, 2012 at 4:18 pm | Reply
  21. Paganguy

    There is a limit to everything. If we let half of the Chinese population into the US, they would become an instant majority and Chinese would be the main language. Same with the people of India. Yes, discrimination is not right. We should not throw people under the bus but we don't want to be thrown under the bus either. A better solution is to privide opportunities to everybody whereever they live: Education.

    June 8, 2012 at 4:14 pm | Reply
  22. JustMyComments

    The key word is 'LEGAL' immigrants.... LEGAL!!!

    June 8, 2012 at 4:15 pm | Reply
  23. Immigrant

    Who isn't an immigrant in US? Every single person alive in US (except Indians) has roots outside of US and by that token we are all immigrants. I am yet to meet a 1st generation immigrants on welfare – they work hard to come to US and they work hard all their lives – Issue is not them, issue is the 2nd and 3rd generation kids of immigrants (who consider themselves keeper of US of A).

    June 8, 2012 at 4:15 pm | Reply
    • what

      Yes, and immigrants get preference for jobs, not the people who have lived in the country all their lives, paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in education, taxes, etc to lose out to an unqualified immigrant just because they're an immigrant. Other than that, welfare. It's not that hard to see when you're getting screwed every year for taxes, while these immigrants get the easy life

      June 8, 2012 at 4:22 pm | Reply
    • Donald H

      First of all, I am not an immigrant. I was born in the U.S. This is my country. It does not matter if my parents were born here or immigrated from somewhere else. Just because a family cannot find roots back to the stone age in this land does NOT make them all immigrants or relatives of immigrants. For the majority of persons who where born on this land, in this country, I say: WE ARE NOT IMMIGRANTS!!! THIS IS OUR LAND. WE ARE NATIVES BY BIRTHRIGHT! Don't try to tell us any different, because we know better.

      June 8, 2012 at 4:23 pm | Reply
  24. Ranger01

    The bottom line on this Immigration issue is... Yes – it is fine to have immigration not from Illegal’s that sneak into the United States, but those who immigrate through the legal process. It is a privilege to live in the United States and not a privilege that should be dummied downed by slack policies. Another point – There should be no importation of workers, or outsourcing to other countries unless the unemployment rate is below 2%. Part of national security is the employment of Citizens. This creates an environment of investment and commerce if people have money to spend on cars, appliances, boats, and other luxury items. The American Dream! This assures that jobs are not being taken away from legal citizens that will work at Walmart to survive. Plenty of old people are competing for low wage jobs because it is so tough to make ends meet in retirement. This makes it tougher for young youth who want to save for a car or collage to get their first job. Our legal US Youth Citizens deserve better and are considering this in their vote on what they can do to not have to compete with Illegal’s. Let American take care of its own first, then the rest of the world second.

    June 8, 2012 at 4:15 pm | Reply
  25. Holly

    ..gratifying to see how quick everyone was to name game. Yep... illegals really don't contribute. in fact you and i spend 4.2 billion a year, that's 10 million a day on just one of their scams – claiming dependents that don't exist or who leave in MX. this is all going to stop, Americans know what's going on.. look up NumbersUSA.. register and then take action

    June 8, 2012 at 4:15 pm | Reply
  26. Greg

    Thank goodness the author of this article holds no political power – they seem to have neither insight nor foresight.

    America's immigration policies are set up not significantly unlike the admissions policies of a University. We want to attract those who's skills, talents and abilities will enrich America and make it a better place. Those who would improve our country less, well, we are less interested in. And, _that is exactly the way it should be_. Does such a policy perpetuate (or fail to improve as much as possible) poverty in other nations? Possibly. But that is not the priority for our leaders who set immigration policies, nor the majority of voters who give them that power. You are free to rail against such an "America first" system for setting policy all you wish, but there is good reason your suggested replacement is a minority viewpoint – if implemented it would clearly be a disaster. If we simply admitted anyone that wanted to live here, not only would we dilute the merit of immigrants because the new system would ignore merit, we would also become a destination for everyone in the world that is starving. As global population increases from 6 billion to 7, 8, 9 billion and more, what will the billions starving want do? Stay put and starve, or go to America's open boarders to live off welfare? As difficult as you may find this, try to look forward 50 years and imagine what the consequences might be for an America with open boarders. Would this make our country a better place for those who already live here?

    Is it an injustice that Americans on average have a better life than a person in a third-world nation might? If you find it so, then I suggest you start with yourself in your efforts to change this. Does Philippe Legrain have good food, a car and disposable income, while others in the world do not? Then first fix that injustice before bothering the rest of us with your absurd ideas. When you have equalized your level of wealth with that of most impoverished of this world, only then will I be willing to listen to what you have to say.

    June 8, 2012 at 4:16 pm | Reply
  27. LinSea

    Mr. Legrain, I don't care a flying leap about where an immigrant came from. I DO care about whether they came here according to the laws of our country and will respect those laws while they are here.

    June 8, 2012 at 4:16 pm | Reply
  28. riadakram

    CNN edits(restricts free speech AGAIN) Can't post what I think cuz it doesn't align with leftist agenda

    June 8, 2012 at 4:16 pm | Reply
  29. Curiousgeorge

    Screw 'em. They can stay home and fix their own pathetic armpits instead of bringing all their baggage to the US.

    June 8, 2012 at 4:17 pm | Reply
    • Dink Cheney

      I kind of wish your ancestors had stayed to fix up their own countries.

      June 8, 2012 at 5:23 pm | Reply
      • dkew09

        why....? then you wouldn't be here..

        June 8, 2012 at 5:32 pm |
  30. jason

    I agree with author on some parts of the article and disagree on many parts. America needs an influx of young workers, skilled, unskilled, educated, uneducated. We need agricultural workers, workers in the medical providers services, construction, education, and in technical fields like biotech research. We need these young workers to pay taxes to support social security and allow America to grow out it's debt. America is not having enough babies fast enough to meet the challenges of the future. A big problem in America as I see it, is this continuing culture of victimization from everyone here in this country and it infects the newcomers also. For example, the rant about immigrants taking away all of are jobs, so I guess I don't need to look for work anymore. Or America is such a racist country, a person of color does not stand a chance, so why try? And women working in a man's workplace, old people working in a young person's world now, it just goes on and on. Why even leave the house. This article spoke about a Afrikan woman who immigrated to the US, and still would be struggling to make a life compared against the easy ride the lazy natural born son will have making is way in the US. That is not fair and we do a lot in this country to prevent failure. But of course, life is not fair. People who nature was not so kind to will tell you that.

    June 8, 2012 at 4:18 pm | Reply
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