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. Ed in Houston

    Immigrants, if you're not making upwards of $300K/yr then please spare us from your rags-to-riches success stories.

    June 8, 2012 at 4:18 pm | Reply
  2. kramses86k

    CNN is full of B.S. !!!!!!! They always try to push certain ideals and morals on to us! I have no problem with people coming here for a better life... I just don't want you here illegally, using my tax dollars to feed your kids, cousins, aunts and grandparents! as well as raising the cost of healthcare, buy having your kids in our hospitals and not paying for it, the way everyone else does. My parents came here from the carribean with NOTHING! They came here legally and worked hard to afford the middle class lifestyle they gave me and my siblings

    June 8, 2012 at 4:18 pm | Reply
  3. disgustedvet

    Do we still have the "quota " system in effect ? My wife who is an immigrant ( now a citizen of course ) was born in Poland. Her father was an American who was taken back to Poland as a child by his parents and grew up etc. Even though he was American,his Polish wife and kids had towait for years before they could come here.

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

      Yes. Immigration and naturalization act of 1965 still in effect. Decreased numbers of those allowed to immigrate from eastern European nations (Read: Caucasians) and increase significantly those allowed to immigrate from African and Hispanic countries (Read: "people of color").

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

        Thanks . Not surprising either.

        June 8, 2012 at 4:29 pm |
  4. roman1descent

    I think that white American woman should stop having abortions so the babies can be naturally born American citizens instead of filling up the void caused by murdered children with immigrants. I guess politicians and liberals want us peach colored folks to be reduced to 2 % of the population?

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

    My wife is a LEGAL Immigrant, and like most legal immigrants, feels that illegal immigrants are like a spit in the face for all that they have worked and strived to achieve. We need the immigrants that put in the time and effort to be a fully functional, contributing members of our society. (as you can see I don't believe in "PC speak") Let's speak plain!

    The problem is not just the people who come to live in the U.S., illegally. Actually the real problem is the people that prey on them either through either smuggling them in, or paying them pennies on the dollar for work that anyone else could do. Illegals should not be punished, just returned to their homeland. The people that need to be punished are the real lawbreakers, those doing the smuggling and hiring.

    The illegals are an invitation to more problems. Misunderstanding are the main contributing factor! Many of these folks not only don't speak english, but can't grasp the smallest concepts of the language. We can't just keep adopting new second languages, as eventually the liberals will have packaging labels covering the item you are buying completely and alternative language signs blocking the view of what the are explaining or trying to sell. Even if we don't get folks we have to support in our welfare system, they will cause a severe cost to our infrastructure in legal and linguistic support. Frankly, we can't afford those that we already support.

    Celebrate the LEGAL immigrant!!!

    June 8, 2012 at 4:20 pm | Reply
  6. Fed Up

    It seems that those who WERE born in this country are discriminated against – try applying for a job and see how much they screen for your ethnic background – and one of the initial questions is "are you Hispanic or Latino"? It's wrong to still have this practice – especially after Blacks wanted "equality" and then also expected to get preferred hiring treatment. Just take a look at most Federal jobs (i.e. US Postal Service) which is filled with highly incompetent minorities that are protected from ever losing their job due to racial quotas.

    June 8, 2012 at 4:20 pm | Reply
  7. jameslabvile

    No, we don't need more immigrants here in the U.S. We currently have millions of people that are unemployed. First, we get our people employed, then we can think about letting a limited amount of immigrants into this country. The only reason this mindset is being considered is because the corporations and elite want to bring in new, supposedly better educated people that will accept lower wages. From what I am seeing in my area is a lot of these immigrants are taking jobs in fast-food areas, stores, construction, and many other service jobs that don't require the level of education that the Elite say they are looking for. NO IMMIGRANTS until we get the American people back to work in GOOD jobs. If the government wants an educated workforce, they can take some of the money they are wasting on these meaningless wars, and spend it on the American people and get them trained for "tomorrows jobs".

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

    This country is NOT great because of immigrants. This country is great because determined people fought and died for the freedoms we have now. Will the people coming in now die for this country if necessary? Doubtful, most come here but still hold allegiance to their country of origin, and even go so far as to try to change things here to their culture.
    The immigrants of now are nothing like the immigrants to which people are trying to compare them to.
    The world has changed and not for the better, nationalities still separate us, religions keep us apart and money keeps us tied to the treadmill.
    No, more people will not help this country, just strain it even more than it is already.
    I feel bad for my son, what does the future hold?
    More of the same unfortunately.

    June 8, 2012 at 4:21 pm | Reply
  9. paul

    Immigrants are more than welcome to come to this country legally, but those that come here illegally should be punished. I would disagree with the article they we are desperate for them, which just need to put those who are leaching off the system to work and that would solve the issue.

    June 8, 2012 at 4:21 pm | Reply
  10. zaxxonzz

    Why is this even an article? I don't think 99% of Americans can disagree with the obvious conclusion of this piece. We need immigration, BUT WHAT WE DON'T NEED is an immigration policy that nets us the underclass of one country of one type of people. We get the poorest people from one country of one culture. HOW DOES THIS ADD TO DIVERSITY and so-called multiculturalism? It doesn't we need a policy that gets us a bigger mix of diverse people, and cultures. That is exactly why we need to crack down on illegal immigration, so that we can allow MORE LEGAL immigrants, that get us a better representation of a countries and cultures, like Doctors, Laywers, Engineers; not just the poor uneducated from Mexico!

    June 8, 2012 at 4:22 pm | Reply
  11. Ordinary Average American

    What would be wrong with the American people (the LEGAL citizens) choosing to change or halt our immigration policies FOR THE GOOD OF AMERICA? If we don't do something soon, it's going to be too late and there will be cultures from all over the world crowding America's streets, with no sign of what "used to be."

    June 8, 2012 at 4:23 pm | Reply
    • Donald H

      What good comes from changing a law if there is little or no enforcement of the law? Our President continues to ignore immigration law by encouraging lax enforcement. And then, every so often, enforcement is allowed as a show of how good a job he is doing. And we read about how he is attempting to thwart state assistance with immigration enforcement by litigation claiming exclusive immigration enforcemtn rights of the federal government. What a spin-doctor scammer! So, why go through the change-the-law process. With no enforcement, it's a huge waste of time.

      June 8, 2012 at 4:32 pm | Reply
  12. Asturiano

    If it's benefits you want don't come to the US, we are stingy even for our own citizens; dozens of other countries are far more generous.

    June 8, 2012 at 4:23 pm | Reply
  13. SumWerNTX

    The United States has always been a diverse country, allowing in immigrants from multiple different countries and religions.

    The United States needs legal immigrants: those that are willing to pay their taxes, work their jobs, attend college, follow the laws, and otherwise benificial to society.

    The United States does NOT need the illegal immigants that: don't pay their taxes, steal jobs from legal residents, ignore the laws, and are otherwise a drain on society.

    Don't get me wrong, there are thousands (or more) illegal immigrants that work hard, spend money at the stores, follow our laws (other than being illegal), and otherwise support this country. The problem is: They're illegal and not paying taxes.

    The process of becoming a naturalized citizen is a pain. Read up on it once. You'd be surprised what they have to do and learn. The average American (sadly, myself included) probably couldn't pass the naturalization test.

    Personally, we should allow those that are being benefical to become citizens. Overall, it would be a good thing for the country.

    June 8, 2012 at 4:23 pm | Reply
    • Holly

      ...times have changed, and drug cartels have big bucks.... look around at the newest business in your neighborhood...funny no one goes in and no one goes out... why are states going bankrupt? is it because illegals are scamming the system for the benefits. YOU as an American will shell out 10 million a day. this is a new reality created by illegals and their backers the drug cartels. better get real about what is happening in YOUR neighborhood. ...look up NumbersUSA... register and then take action.

      June 8, 2012 at 4:33 pm | Reply
  14. Salman Khan

    Zakaria you are wrong.

    America outsourced almost everything, unemployment rate is too high, your manufacturing outsourced to China. Call Centre outsourced to India. An army of IT Consultant came from India, in presence of these consultant your less experience american citizen not getting any chance, if they hired these morons make there life miserable.

    Bring Manufacturing back
    Bring Call Centre back.
    Trained your own citizen
    Tax those who outsourced there jobs outside America.

    By the way I am not an American and I have to go thru Immigration to enter USA.

    June 8, 2012 at 4:24 pm | Reply
    • SumWerNTX

      Agreed! Manufacturing has rebounded a little bit, but not enough. Taxing those that outsource (like Apple), may force them to return stateside.

      Unemployment is 8.2% as of May 2012 *
      * Those that are actively searching for work. If you considering those that stopped, our unemployment is much higher.

      Our other problem, much like other countries, is that our unemployment for the 16 to 26 yr old group in unacceptable. It is roughly 26% at last estimate. Take Iran and France for example. Their unemployment for that age group is in the 30% range.

      By bringing back Manufacturing jobs and Call Center jobs, we'll open up opportunities for those groups.

      June 8, 2012 at 4:33 pm | Reply
  15. Holly

    ..look up who wrote this article and then you might have a better perspective. yep. million upon million upon millions networking the USa. one scam – claiming up 20 dependents who do not exist or live in mexico – cost YOU the tax payer 10 million a day or 4.2 billion a year. wonder why states are going bankrupt? simple – Americans can't pay for this. ...look up NumbersUSA.. register and help stop this.

    June 8, 2012 at 4:25 pm | Reply
  16. Frank

    I think the overwhelming majority of Americans have absolutely nothing against immigrants, per se. I BELIEVE that the beef many Americans have with immigrants are two fold. First, ILLEGAL immigrants who come to this country are an issue. No one can deny that. I am married to an immigrant, but we did it legally and it wasn't easy. So, why should I have any respect for those that don't? Second, there are some immigrants who force others to adapt to their customs, instead of the other way around. But, if someone wants to come to this country LEGALLY, and be productive and BECOME AN AMERICAN, then I am all for it and more power to them.
    That's my take on it, for what it's worth.

    June 8, 2012 at 4:25 pm | Reply
    • Sue Wallick

      Excellent post.

      June 8, 2012 at 4:28 pm | Reply
      • Ugh!

        You have got to be kidding. More like, awful, hate-filled post.

        June 8, 2012 at 5:35 pm |
    • JaySF

      Ugh, why do you respond so venomously to people who are simply expressing opinions you happen not to agree with? There's no hatred in Frank's posting, but I'm sure sensing plenty of it in your response.

      June 9, 2012 at 3:18 pm | Reply

    If you don't have Native American Indian blood in you, then you are ALL immigrants.

    June 8, 2012 at 4:26 pm | Reply
    • Sue Wallick

      I have Native American blood in me through my mothers side of our family, but I don't claim it anymore than I claim the English, French, German, & Jewish side from both my mother and fathers side. And guess what, there could be others throughout the years. People began to travel you know. Get real. I'm born in America and an American is what I am.

      June 8, 2012 at 4:31 pm | Reply
      • Dink Cheney

        The point of his/her post is to declare that it is silly for a "nation of Immigrants" like we are to complain that immigrants are ruining the country.

        June 8, 2012 at 4:51 pm |
  18. Sue Wallick

    Fareed is mistaken. Probably first time today. There are probably few of us living today who had parents or grand parents who came to this country via Ellis Island . We were taught in school that Columbus discovered American. Was that a lie by the education system all this time. What's true is that you don't see American citizens who were born here defecting to countries like his own in droves. The illegals that come here aren't coming for a better life and a stable home. They come to send our money back to there families and would go back in a heartbeat if there country was a strong as this one was. THEY ARE SIMPLY ILLEGAL. Under our current law, they should be arrested and deported. The one's that are deported to either Canada or Mexico or some other South American country just walk back over here at will. The rest we should and could have some record of who they are and where they went and if they are back again. These things are our own fault. We're a weak country now and our leadership is nil. We are getting what we sowed and aren't loving it. If someone like Fareed has to make a big deal out of it, you know there is something fishy about it in the first place. The last thing this country need now is more illegals, not prospective citizens as the people who came through Ellis Island so many years ago.

    June 8, 2012 at 4:26 pm | Reply
  19. Jokesterer

    Xenophobia must have a survival advantage or it wouldn't be as prevalent as it is.

    June 8, 2012 at 4:27 pm | Reply
  20. JerPell

    Great Idea......That way we can boost the unemployment rate to around 18%.....Lets get our country healthy then we can play house!

    June 8, 2012 at 4:27 pm | Reply
  21. w l jones

    The man from Kenya came here where his Ancient realitive been living here for over one hundred thousand years. Look it up the Jamesee came from west Africa and settle all over the Americas. Bless.

    June 8, 2012 at 4:28 pm | Reply
    • doughnuts

      a) Kenya is in EAST Africa.
      b) West Africans weren't immigrants, they were imported labor.

      If epidemics hadn't killed more than 90% of the native population, we would have just enslaved them.

      June 8, 2012 at 4:52 pm | Reply
  22. Dave

    Few people doubt the need for immigrants. But what we need/want are LEGAL immigrants. We have enough criminals who are U.S. citizens- we don't need more.

    June 8, 2012 at 4:28 pm | Reply
  23. rdeleys

    You ignorant, narrow-minded, right-wing bigots disgust me. It wouldn't surprise me if you proudly called yourself Christian too. I and should be patriotic with the likes of YOU in this country? No chance! Not anymore!

    June 8, 2012 at 4:29 pm | Reply
    • Ugh!

      Amen! They fill these blogs like dirty flies.

      June 8, 2012 at 5:36 pm | Reply
  24. Bob

    No problem with hard-working, ambitious legal immigrants to this country. It was the backbone of our evolution. Illegal immigrants with nothing to their name, violating immigration laws and living off the taxpayers is a very different issue. Those who support illegal immigration try to blend the two together to hide their objectives.

    June 8, 2012 at 4:29 pm | Reply
    • Ugh!

      Your xenophobia disgusts me. We are all human beings. You really gonna argue with that? You are so selfish and hateful.

      June 8, 2012 at 5:38 pm | Reply
      • JaySF

        What an odd response. This comment isn't xenophobic at all. It's a statement against illegal immigration and not against foreigners in general. And do you think everyone should be allowed to live in the U.S. just because we're all human beings?

        June 9, 2012 at 2:36 pm |
  25. enoughalready

    Every race, religion, nationality etc. has its embarrassments, frauds, crimminals and freeloaders. The USA cannot afford more people on the system; food stamps, housing, free medical. This takes more money from honest hardworking person that does pay taxes and does the right thing born here or not. It's that simple. We do need immigration to continue to balance the population but we need those that can support themselves. You do not go to a foreign land with nothing and expect them to pay for you and then invite the family. Come here with good intentions if you cannot do it right then you need to go home. Sadley this will never happen, it is out of control.

    June 8, 2012 at 4:29 pm | Reply
    • JaySF

      Well said. I totally agree.

      June 9, 2012 at 2:39 pm | Reply
  26. Joe in Kalispell, MT

    We need a small trickle of LEGAL immigrants. Illegal immigrants need not apply.

    June 8, 2012 at 4:29 pm | Reply
    • Dink Cheney

      Need not apply? Who will apply for the jobs American companies choose to employ illegal immigrants to do?

      June 8, 2012 at 5:18 pm | Reply
  27. Josie Behnke

    Coming from a person whose own great-great-great grandfather was an imagrant from Scotland, I have no problems with immigration. I have a problem of getting into this country illegally. They don't pay taxes, they go to school and live on medical help because they cannot legally get a job. Much of that money is sent back home and not spent on our economy. If you are going to immigrate into any country, do it legally! It's that simple. This country is built on people coming to the United States to get a better start, get away from starvation, and persecution.

    June 8, 2012 at 4:30 pm | Reply
  28. Jason

    Wow, there are lots of comments on this. There are a few simple truths about this. The United States is prosporus for a number of reasons. First of all, I believe God blessed the Christian settlers here. Those settlers were very hard working and started civilations and all that went with it (electricity, indoor plumbing, mass transit). Yes, we have had a civil war but we aren't constantly in a tribal war with eachother and destroying our cities. Morals tell us that murdering or stealing from eachother is wrong. We punnish those we can prove do those things. We are also one of the least corrupt countries on the planet (not in the top 20 but not in the bottom 100 either). The more people we let in from other countries that don't share our religion and moral values the less the US is going to be like the US. The more Africans we let in, the more like Africa we will be and that is not a good thing. This country needs immigrants but we should select who we let in based on what they can do for the country. Immigrants should not be allowed any public assistance of any kind until they have paid into the system for 10 years or more. This country would not be in the middle of it's current financial crisis if we had zero illegal immigrants. Most people don't consider what a drain they are on hospitals, schools prisions etc. Illegal immigrants cost this country hundreds of billions of dollars every year if not into trillions. Just think, the same amount of businesses but 1/2 of the prision population, 30% less crime, most gangs gone, 20% reduction in school enrollment by parrents who don't pay taxes. If getting rid of all illegal immigrants didn't completely solve our financial problems it would certainly go a very long way.

    June 8, 2012 at 4:30 pm | Reply
    • rdeleys

      So now you're blaming immigrants for the economic downturn??? Your post is exceedingly simplistic. First, this country is a secular country and has been since its inception. The First Amendment guarantees it. Second, regarding prisons, they wouldn't cost so much if Americans weren't so anxious to punish every infraction so severely. This country has more people behind bars (>2 million) that any other country on earth, and the US represents only 5% of the world's population. It's a national tragedy of our own making, and we should be deeply ashamed.

      June 8, 2012 at 4:39 pm | Reply
    • Dink Cheney

      Many years ago Protestant Christians made the very same argument that the more Irish Catholics we let in the worse it will get. We seem to have survived just fine.

      June 8, 2012 at 4:53 pm | Reply
  29. Anonymous

    "YES" AMERICA give every other immigrant there citizenship....( So they can take our JOBS, and Blow us up....)
    OH but if you from MEXICO let's send you back!!

    June 8, 2012 at 4:31 pm | Reply
  30. dan

    We need immigrants but only if they are legal immigrants.

    June 8, 2012 at 4:31 pm | Reply
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