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. ~J~

    Bottom line,

    If America was in the position where we had an "excess of jobs....then by all means. News flash, It has nothing to do with where they come from but if we can't put Americans to work then why are we going to allow immigrants come in? Anyone see what unemployed immigrants an youth did to France? And you want that here because it looks like we are discriminating? If we do this then we are not only doing Americans an injustice but also the immigrants who's here looking for employment, but are none to be had.

    Mr. Legrain, I'm sure your a wiser man than I but really?!

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

    Romney knows how to create jobs! (for foreigners)

    June 8, 2012 at 4:46 pm | Reply
  3. Rags

    Yes, we need immigrants but just not any immigrants. We need LEGAL immigrants and you'd be more than welcome.

    June 8, 2012 at 4:46 pm | Reply
  4. koshka

    Silly arguments! The author should have just stated that liberals like him need a bigger voting block of welfare recipients to change the country forever.

    June 8, 2012 at 4:48 pm | Reply
  5. se123

    the only issue I have with immigrants. If you plan on living in this country they you need to speak English

    June 8, 2012 at 4:48 pm | Reply
  6. Chris Honry

    W T F ? Where did you hear this? "it's OK to discriminate... crap"? I've worked for 30 years in the public and private sectors and it is absolutely rammed down our friggin' throats that WHITE PEOPLE ARE RACISTS even if they don't admit it and the rest are the good people. No matter how much we give you people you are never satisfied! I never owned slaves, neither did my parents or grand parents, who weren't even in this sick weak country until 1889 AFTER your damned, beloved excuse for being a POS. You aren't a slave, neither was your father or grandfather SO GET OVER IT YOU LAZY POS s

    June 8, 2012 at 4:48 pm | Reply
    • Dink Cheney

      Perhaps "white people" over the course of the nation's history have done enough racists things that over time they got a reputation as racists?

      June 8, 2012 at 5:07 pm | Reply
      • dkew09

        So dick lemme ask you a question. Should i judge your character on what your father did, you grandfather did, your great grandfather did? So you condone judging a group of people based on something someone else did that is part of that . Sounds very ignorant to me.

        June 8, 2012 at 5:21 pm |
      • dkew09

        should i judge black ppl because i can't turn on the news without hearing about drive by shootings with colateral damage (usually babies), or drug deals gone bad, or breaking and entering everywhere. It is true most prisons are filled with them and yet i have plenty of smart and good natured african american friends. I don't think we should paint a broad brush.

        June 8, 2012 at 5:28 pm |
  7. Lola

    son of a Kenyan goatherd or son of Stanley Ann Dunham?

    June 8, 2012 at 4:48 pm | Reply
  8. San Juaninos

    This is probably one of the most stupid and inane arguments I've ever seen on CNN regarding immigration - with some of the lamest logic out there. This is really saying something considering how idiotic most of them are on CNN.com - especially when one considers how useless Ruben Navanrrette's commentaries are. Congratulations Philippe Legrain. You managed to be more pathetic than Ruben Navarette in your whiney commentary.

    June 8, 2012 at 4:48 pm | Reply
  9. Mile Hi Dave

    Personally, I have nothing against immigrants...it's the ILLEGAL ones I demand our government to enforce it's laws over. Why does it seem like everyone wants to make it about race??? It's about violating our laws! Aren't we a "nation of laws"? Enforce our current immigration laws!!

    June 8, 2012 at 4:49 pm | Reply
  10. Jokesterer

    Taco Taco Kisses!

    June 8, 2012 at 4:50 pm | Reply
  11. mudbone9

    Men in this world need to learn how to pull out when the moment comes. This world has to many GD people!

    June 8, 2012 at 4:50 pm | Reply
    • Stan

      I'm a man and I say Amen to that!

      June 8, 2012 at 4:56 pm | Reply
  12. donny

    we dont need any one else hard enuff here as it is. they come here it puts us out of jobs..they just pushing us out of or on country.they taking over. we r blind to this.better open or eyes and look arond....this is whats wrong with this country today...to many others coming in taking over

    June 8, 2012 at 4:51 pm | Reply
  13. Arthur

    We should be fair to everyone. Invite all walks of immigrants from all over the world including above average, upper middle class, or rich. Not just working class only. I am an immigrant myself and I came here poor. I see the problem that we have in immigrantion policy is tilted towards one end. Easy for family connection but touch for investment immigrants. Canada and Australia will allow folks come in with minumum $200,000 cash in the 90s.. And these two countires enjoy so much prosperity by opening the door to the affluent ones. Don't make it wrong!!!!! They also take the poor or the needy ones. It is OK to open the door bigger for the affluent ones. Make them feel like America will welcome their presence, their investment and their contribution.

    June 8, 2012 at 4:51 pm | Reply
  14. Tyler Durden

    Opinion: America needs immigrants

    Counter-Opinion: No, we don't

    June 8, 2012 at 4:52 pm | Reply
  15. interesteing

    Makes life more intresting, but i wouldn't say we need them.

    June 8, 2012 at 4:53 pm | Reply
  16. Ron

    Of course America needs Immigrants. We need controls and we need legal immigrants.

    We don't need the criminal elements of the world moving in the destroy this country.

    June 8, 2012 at 4:53 pm | Reply
  17. Farhrique Englasias

    LEGAL Immigrants are fantastic!

    June 8, 2012 at 4:53 pm | Reply
  18. Stan

    To the author of this article-
    The enemy isn't racism anymore...it's poverty. In a world of finite resources (yes, they're finite), the answer is to stop having babies...across the world. You can displace people all across the world but the noose is just going to get tighter and tighter for everyone.

    June 8, 2012 at 4:53 pm | Reply
  19. Cacl

    don't we have enough poor and illiterate in the US now who ARE INDEED a tax burden. Shouldn't the US make sure that all of its people are lifted up before worrying about other nationals. What is the matter with you liberal "journalists?" Mr. Zakaria and Mr. Legrain I'm talking to you. Do you really believe we are a global village with the US being the Daddy of them all? Do you ever respond to your critics or just write books and go on cable spouting your stupidity.

    June 8, 2012 at 4:54 pm | Reply
  20. TooClose2DC

    Why does this OPINION piece have the largest real estate on CNN's main page? THIS IS NOT NEWS!!! It is an opinion. On the Opinion page, make it as large as you want but keep it to the opinion square on the main page. NOT NEWS NOT NEWS NOT NEWS!

    June 8, 2012 at 4:54 pm | Reply
  21. forreal89

    we don't we are now getting a group of Africans and Arabs that are arrogant breeders lazy and hate America no way

    June 8, 2012 at 4:54 pm | Reply
  22. dkew09

    i think there are many ppl missing the point. there was a time when immigration was needed like during the industrial revolution or in times when business is booming. There are no jobs and we are in debt with no alleviation on the horizon. We already have too many immigrants (asian, black, white etc..) no matter what skin color. The relationship is no longer symbiotic but that of a parasite. millions of dollars wasted a year already on natural born welfare leechers why in the H*** would we america want more. Not saying all go on welfare but a majority does. When and immigrant comes here and has a child or two who do you think flips the bill? insurance premiums go up for everyone else. This is just one example of many.

    Everyone who is throwing around this xenophobia term needs to stop. there may be some but not all ppl are xenophobes. this is a copout

    June 8, 2012 at 4:55 pm | Reply
  23. John Spurlock

    A pretty story, and a fine example of how the facts can support you point of view... as long as you ignore some of the facts.
    Simply put, America, just like every other country, has a limited suppply of... everything. Land, jobs, food, wealth, etc. The more people you add to the country, the smaller the piece each individual gets. People coming from small backward countries see their slice of the pie grow by coming to this greater nation where everything is more plentiful than in the third world nation of their birth. But to give them that slice of the pie, we each lose a little of our own slice. Multipled by a hand full of immigrants is small, multiplied by hundreds of thousands is more, and multiplied by millions who would come here illegally is... well, as the saying goes... do the math.
    This country has an obligation to care for it's citizen's, as does each country. We MUST first care for those already here, before we invite in more whom we can't care for.
    Some would say turning these people away is immoral.
    I say forcing our own children to live in poverty is the greater immoralality.

    June 8, 2012 at 4:55 pm | Reply
    • dkew09

      you said you disagree with me yet you just pretty much said what i said.

      June 8, 2012 at 5:13 pm | Reply
  24. WP

    At no point does the author explain WHY America is in need of immigrants. Immigration is a privilege that the United States bestows upon foreigners who wish to move here. Our soil is not international property, and the government's first responsibility is to the interests of the people of the United States and not to people in other countries who wish to come. I think many immigrants have a lot to contribute, but you can't admit literally anyone who knocks at the door.

    Who and how many should be allowed to reside in the US is open to debate, but it's an insult to Americans to say that we just can't do without immigrants. Someone at CNN should be disciplined for posting crazy stuff like this.

    June 8, 2012 at 4:55 pm | Reply
  25. Sinking ship

    The sinking ship analogy is probably closer to the truth. How many people od you let on the life raft before it sinks? And is that the way to handle things?

    June 8, 2012 at 4:56 pm | Reply
  26. MobiusEight

    No, we do not "need" immigrants. What we need is for them to go fix their own countries. America can't support the planet anymore, we can barely even keep ourselves afloat. Everyone is trying to drink from the well that is America, but the water has become stagnant and corrupted from just sitting there while everyone drinks from it at once. We need people to go back to the countries they are originally from and fight to make those places better. Eventually, the well of America is going to run dry, and if no one has done anything to draw more wells, what then will it matter if people have "rights" or "freedom?" It will be anarchy, with everyone just trying to survive.

    June 8, 2012 at 4:56 pm | Reply
    • Dink Cheney

      When are you going back to the country your ancestors emigrated from?

      June 8, 2012 at 5:00 pm | Reply
  27. r

    in the end not one opinion here matters not even mine???

    if 40 million latinos dont become employers soon

    the next gov is going to throw them right out of here....

    1 percent is going to say

    you can have a person mkaing 8 bucks an hour for 15 years.....

    June 8, 2012 at 4:56 pm | Reply
  28. RudyG

    We don't discriminate against immigrants. We are ALL either immigrants, or come from immigrants. We DO discriminate against ILLEGAL immigrants. Either we are a nation of laws, or we're hypocritical mortal relativists. You can't be both, Mr. Legrain. Your hypocrisy is so transparent you really must have guts to have written this article.

    June 8, 2012 at 4:56 pm | Reply
  29. NudeTruth

    Immigrants are fine, it's the ILLEGAL ones people have a problem with.

    June 8, 2012 at 4:56 pm | Reply
  30. REALLY?

    You know what...you're right...open up the borders to all without delay:

    Somali Pirates of the world
    Taliban Rebels of the...
    Hugo Chavez' of...
    Kim Jong Il's of...
    Pakistani "Western Haters" of...
    etc, etc

    I'm not saying all illegals are the worst of the worst out there by any means. But where does it stop!?! What you're asking for is to open the flood gates and bring everyone into the soup bowl already riddled with "flies".

    Listen, I'm all for bringing in people into this country that want to CONTRIBUTE to its well being. And CONTRIBUTE means to pay taxes, not go on welfare, spend money in the US.

    And you can't pull the "poor" Americans into this conversation either. There is EQUAL opportunity for EVERY American to make something of themselves. Problem is that even though someone may say they want to "lose weight", the don't get one the treadmill...in a manner of speaking.

    Bottom line...come here legally, contribute, make something of yourself to help make the country, that is giving you everything, better.

    June 8, 2012 at 4:56 pm | Reply
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