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. Texas

    There is plenty of room in our country, and plenty of resources. Fly from coast to coast and see how much space there is, just in the contiguous USA. We can support 5x what we have, we just can't allocate things correctly right now since all of our politicians are a bunch of lying crooks who would sell their first born for another term.

    June 8, 2012 at 4:31 pm | Reply
  2. Travis50

    Immigrants aren't the problem. ILLEGAL immigrants are the problem. My mother in law immigrated to the USA from Austria back in the 50's. It took her a long time to get a visa, and she was kept on Ellis Island in New York while her papers and health were checked out. She learned English and stopped speaking German to all but family in Austria or people here that only spoke German. She didn't expect US citizens to have to adopt to her language. Today people think they have a right to cross our borders and just do whatever they want. While many are hard workers, thousands come for our "freebies" that they can't get back home. And that just isn't what most people think of as welfare, provided by the States. One of the big issues that the press does not cover is the filing of federal tax returns by immigrants who have almost no income, pay less than a thousand dollars in federal income taxes, yet get refunds of $5,000 plus. They do this using all the refundable credits allowed even to those without a SS#. They can get the refundable school credits, the Additional Child Tax Credit (big in the immigrant community where they pile 4 or more kids with all different last names on the form) and if issued a real SS# they also qualify for the Earned Income Tax Credit. That is another big one with them. And they all know about them and how to file. Plus with the SS# they can reach back three years and file Amended Returns to claim the EIC for the years that they didn't have a SS#. You are talking Billions!! And if you don't think they are taking jobs, try getting a crew comprised of US Citizens to come out to build, paint, put a roof on, lanscape your yard or any other blue collar work. They even work on government funded projects, taking jobs meant for US Citizens.

    June 8, 2012 at 4:32 pm | Reply
    • Rick Perry

      Nice story. You should be a CNN writer.

      June 8, 2012 at 9:09 pm | Reply
  3. D. Evil

    Ah, its great to see such hate, jelousy and lothing. It makes my job easier to put all your souls to waste.

    June 8, 2012 at 4:33 pm | Reply
  4. tjp44

    no one disagrees with the fact we need immigrants....in fact we all are except for American Indians.......but we need LEGAL ones who here to work, become citizens and pay taxes.....NOT SPOUNGE OFF TAXPAYERS FOR BENFITS.........secure the borders, make the illegals become citizens or leave and they must pay some fine or back tax for rectification.....NOTHING RACIST ABOUT THAT NOW IS THERE

    June 8, 2012 at 4:33 pm | Reply
    • rdeleys

      So I guess you would be willing to pick beans in California or mow lawns for low pay and no benefits? No? Just as I thought.

      June 8, 2012 at 4:42 pm | Reply
      • doughnuts

        Beans are picked with mechanical harvesters.
        Mow your own yard.

        June 8, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
    • doughnuts

      a) I disagree. We really don't need immigrants of any kind.

      b) Ever hear of Siberia? Thats where the Native Americans IMMIGRATED from.

      June 8, 2012 at 4:46 pm | Reply
    • Ugh!

      Oh, such ignorance and myths you spread! No one said racist, but the hatred is clear as day.

      June 8, 2012 at 5:41 pm | Reply
  5. walter

    Sure thing. Let's allow all who want in acccess.
    Have you ever heard of locusts?
    Plenty of room for anybody who wants in.
    Infrastucture already in place, pelnty of excess water, enrgy etc.

    June 8, 2012 at 4:34 pm | Reply
  6. Cacol

    1 million immigrants are allowed into this country yearly and many of them are suking off the teat of the taxpayer..".until they get started". That is why they want to be here. No where else will they be treated as well. That in itself eliminates your accusations of discrimination. It is not the job of the USA to be the keeper to all who want to be kept.

    June 8, 2012 at 4:34 pm | Reply
    • Dink Cheney

      "It is not the job of the USA to be the keeper to all who want to be kept."

      That is precisely why I would like to see you deported.

      June 8, 2012 at 5:16 pm | Reply
  7. Ed

    Thanks. Now I feel good about myself again for thinking good thoughts. Keep up the goodness. This article is a renewal of my faith in the essential goodness of all good people. Keep a sharp eye out for the bad people who are against goodness.

    June 8, 2012 at 4:35 pm | Reply
  8. white = ignorance

    First of all, the only reason thr is illegals in the country is because of scarcity of jobs back in their native land, its called survival people. Second of all, all of you retarded imbred people are going to have to immigrate to China soon enough because all of the jobs are going across seas, so who is going to be the illegal immigrant in a couple of years??
    P.s. you guys are stupid

    June 8, 2012 at 4:36 pm | Reply
    • Ed

      What do you have against inbredding. That's how we got the good hair.

      June 8, 2012 at 4:38 pm | Reply
    • schilaufer

      You need to use Google Chrome. Your spelling errors are giving me a headache.

      June 8, 2012 at 4:43 pm | Reply
  9. TJ

    Yes, let's give everyone in the world the same rights as US citizens, and let them all move here to the US. Then the US can be one big slum. Great idea.

    June 8, 2012 at 4:36 pm | Reply
  10. mudbone9

    Just no illegal immigrants! No amnesty or anchor babies either. They need to leave and get in the back of the line.

    June 8, 2012 at 4:36 pm | Reply
  11. chris

    LEGAL immigrants?? YES please!!! They want and are proud to live in the U.S. Keyword: LEGAL.

    June 8, 2012 at 4:37 pm | Reply
    • Dink Cheney

      American companies choose to hire illegal immigrants.

      June 8, 2012 at 5:13 pm | Reply
  12. Icurheinie

    Like the movie "Crash" it's not so much "discrimination" as it is an "easy tag" to identify someone we don't know. You call them as they appear from a distance: That white dude – that black dude – that chick – that Indian – that China man – let's face it, it's quite easy to diss people we don't know – who aren't within ear shot. This will not ever change, ever, in our history so I would suggest we stop making such a big deal out of it. I do find however, that when people are in ear shot that people are more PC today than they ever have been.

    June 8, 2012 at 4:38 pm | Reply
  13. jim

    WOW...A lot of closed mined peeps on this board. No one wants illegal immigrants, but this article was about being legal. OMG we are going to be overrun by Chinese and Indians..give me a break!!

    June 8, 2012 at 4:38 pm | Reply
  14. wasserball

    Look at it this way. The estimated population of the United States is 312,915,952 so each citizen's share of his debt is $50,291.68. If we double the population with immigrants, my portion of the debt is only half as much! I'll go for that.

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


      June 8, 2012 at 4:40 pm | Reply
  15. RATDOG

    immigrants are always welcome as long as they come here LEGALLY..... its the F-ing ILLEGALS we dont want ...

    June 8, 2012 at 4:41 pm | Reply
    • Genold

      Maybe it is time to back off overpopulating the U.S. and make this an environmentally stable continent. We need to stop all forms of immigration whether it is legal or illegal. Enough already.

      June 8, 2012 at 4:46 pm | Reply
    • Uncle Musty

      RATDOG – Many of the illegals do work no American will do. Too many legals come here, live in their own enclaves, don't assimilate, game the system and send their money back home. Stories such as the on the aired of Nightline last night make me want to puke. Look it up and watch it.

      June 8, 2012 at 4:56 pm | Reply
  16. Charlton Heston

    We have too many people already. Immigration is responsible for most of the population explosion in USA – 100,000,000 in 30 years. It's out rageous considering the problems the world has, that we keep importing more without any talk about stabilizing our population. It doesn't make our country stronger, it makes it weaker. In 1990 LEGAL immigration was limited to 250,000. After that, big business went to the White House and Congress and asked to rais the limit to a million per year. The only reason is so the businesses can make a profit. This has nothing to do with making the country stronger or raising the standard of living for anyone except the rich. meanwhile, the fish are almost gone from the ocean, global warming keeps getting worse, the largest mass extinction in the planet's history, etc.

    June 8, 2012 at 4:41 pm | Reply
  17. doughnuts

    Drive out the illegals by making it more and more difficult to find jobs, housing, etc.
    Tighten down on the number of legal immigrants.

    300 million+ is enough. We're full. Go somewhere else, or stay where you are. We can't help you, and we don't want to.

    June 8, 2012 at 4:42 pm | Reply
  18. Brian

    There is a difference between an "immigrant" and an illegal alien. The Chamber of Commerce is behind articles like this because they want cheap illegal labor which they can exploit and abuse.

    June 8, 2012 at 4:42 pm | Reply
  19. John

    The US May need Immigrants, but we can't afford an more ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS... They are sucking dry our public resources designed for Citizens and paid for by Citizens.. In North Carolina, our children are forced to attend classes in Mobile Classrooms because there is such an influx of children who's parents don't participate in the tax base. I know of a fact that the county and state are providing illegals with benefits such as food stamps and free medical, mental health support..... What really burns me, I watched a couple that spoke zero English. The husband pushing a cart with a new PS3, Movies, Games and a large flat screen TV. He went throught the Walmart checkout first, pulled out a huge wad of 100 dollar bills and paid for the toys. He went to the exit and waited for his wife and kids who bought a cart full of groceries and paid for this with food stamps. They met near the doors and went out to a $50,000 pick-up truck and loaded their goodies. I work hard, don't have a $50,000 vehicle, don't get food stamps, and certainly don't buy myself toys in cash. If I want toys, it comes in the form of credit card debt.. Now I'm told that Illegals can go to community college free, while my kids have to pay? Seems to me that being a Legal Citizen is nothing but a huge expense with nearly no benefits over being here illegally...

    June 8, 2012 at 4:43 pm | Reply
    • Dink Cheney

      Sounds like it might be time for you to move to a different country.

      June 8, 2012 at 4:57 pm | Reply
      • What????

        John's a bit slow.

        June 8, 2012 at 6:20 pm |
      • JaySF

        Not sure why you responded this way. John may not be the most eloquent guy in town, but I think he makes a valid point about welfare abuse.

        June 9, 2012 at 2:30 pm |
  20. Rebbeca

    No one has a problem with imigrants we are all from some place else we have a problem with ILLEGAL imigrants. people who work for cash spunge off society and pay no taxes. Use our hospital emergency rooms like doctor offices and our health insurance costs go up. Whem my grand parents came into this counrty from Ital they had to speak english and have a place to live and have a promise of employment. Now it's come on in take free stuff and kill our economy. The rich stay rich the poor stay poor and the middle class pays for everything. But I would not live any place else but the USA but at some point things need to change and the current body of goverment is doing squat!

    June 8, 2012 at 4:43 pm | Reply
  21. Fed Up

    BRAVO to VioletWeed – well said!

    June 8, 2012 at 4:43 pm | Reply
  22. Genold

    So with 312 million of us in America (while in 1865 there were 31 million of us) we still want to keep the doors open to immigration. Is that right? So we want to make an overcrowded and less then full employed nation take on millions of more immigrants. We want to occupy and utterly overpopulate every square inch of this country. Is that what we really want? Frankly close down the immigration part of this government and lets fix the broken toys we already have.

    June 8, 2012 at 4:44 pm | Reply
  23. Ben

    Can someone tell me exactly what is wrong with regulating our SOVEREIGN borders to ensure only LEGAL immigrants are living in the United States? I'm the son of parents who legally immigrated to America, so are many of my friends and relatives, same as some of those I've served with in the military. Those that are pro-immigration act as if regulating our borders means the US no longer accepts ANY immigrants, while those that argue for regulation are simply asking for immigrants that come to the US under legal means. Being indiscriminant with our immigration policy is obviously impractical, irresponsible and counter-productive.

    June 8, 2012 at 4:44 pm | Reply
    • Jess

      i like this

      June 8, 2012 at 5:05 pm | Reply
  24. Mark L.

    There is a Mike Royko column where Slats Grobnik (Royko's fictional alter ego) rails at one immigrant group after another, until he runs out of groups to attack, even his own. "So who do you think should stay," Mike asks Slats, to which Slats replies, "Real Americans. Like me."

    June 8, 2012 at 4:44 pm | Reply
  25. Pete

    We could use a few thousand immigrants with degrees in engineering, technology, physics and in-demand sciences. We don't need to flood the country with millions of uneducated toilet scrubbers and ditch diggers - we're making plenty of those on our own.

    June 8, 2012 at 4:44 pm | Reply
    • Dink Cheney

      But they won't work under the conditions U.S. employers demand of immigrants. Why do you think American companies employ these people?

      June 8, 2012 at 5:10 pm | Reply
  26. John

    I certainly agree that one shouldn't be discriminated on the basis of where one is born. I was born in the U.S.A., but I have no say-so about my country becoming a disfunctional Third World hellhole. Those with the say-so are Republicans who want cheap labor and Democrats who want cheap votes.

    June 8, 2012 at 4:44 pm | Reply
    • Pete

      However we should absolutely discriminate on the basis of skill set. This isn't the 1800's where we need immigrants to buy up frontier land to fund the government, or low skilled workers to pound hammers to build a transcontinental rail road.

      June 8, 2012 at 4:49 pm | Reply
      • Ed in Houston

        yeah, but we can sell old houses and neighborhoods

        June 8, 2012 at 5:13 pm |
  27. Jason, MBA, Boston Ma

    Unless you are an American Indian...you are the decendant of an IMMIGRANT!!!!! How stupid do you have to be to NOT understand that? MOST of our relatives came here illegally- and our african american friends were forced here on slave ships. Read a history book people- If it wasn't for our "IMMIGRANTS" aka OUR RELATIVES...we wouldn't be here !! Illegal imigrants do the work you are too lazy to do – are you going to pick lettuce from a field? I don't think so ....

    June 8, 2012 at 4:44 pm | Reply
  28. JJ

    Immigrating LEGALLY IS NOT AN OPTION to many people. The posture you are taking is still one of "choosing" who deserves a better life and who does not based on arbitrary factors like the land you were born. It is absolutely OK to believe that, but don't hide your beliefs in the "I support legal immigration therefore this whole argument does not apply to me". This applies to you too, because you also believe factors someone has no control over should determine their lifes.

    June 8, 2012 at 4:45 pm | Reply
  29. rdeleys

    I wish there were some way we could keep the immigrants and deport the bigots.

    June 8, 2012 at 4:45 pm | Reply
    • Badly-Bent

      And I can't wait for the day we employ all Americans and get rid of the immigrants!

      June 8, 2012 at 4:51 pm | Reply
      • Dink Cheney

        And i can't wait for you to emigrate.

        June 8, 2012 at 5:08 pm |
  30. Sam

    Duh!! Of course we need immigrants. What we don't need are illegal immigrants, uneducated immigrants or immigrants from muslim countries out to destroy this countr, or immigrants who wamt to have babies in this country to get a goverrnment handout.. We need educated immmigrants, willing to work hgard who believe in the american dream and who will contribute to society.

    June 8, 2012 at 4:45 pm | Reply
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23

Post a comment


CNN welcomes a lively and courteous discussion as long as you follow the Rules of Conduct set forth in our Terms of Service. Comments are not pre-screened before they post. You agree that anything you post may be used, along with your name and profile picture, in accordance with our Privacy Policy and the license you have granted pursuant to our Terms of Service.