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. Margo Robison

    You must be kidding. Your first paragraph come from where? Have you ever read the immigration policies of Mexico? We should definitely copy those. THis over the border thing is way out of hand. Get a clue, Unless you have a stack of visas or you were born here with citizen parents, go back to where you came from and start over. Sorry , we are not a bedroom community of Mexico..

    June 8, 2012 at 4:57 pm | Reply
  2. Badly-Bent

    I might agree with this; when we get down to say 2.5% REAL unemployment!

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

    Managed immigration is fine. Uncontrolled and Illegal immigration is only a politically motive of a certain party. If that same political party were concerned for the plight of those people they would be working for improvement in their lot in their home counties. Instead they are concerned about political support they represent and the cheap labor they offer to build and maintain their homes. Educated immigrants are also here because industry wants their cheaper labor. Organized labor has turned a blind eye to illegal immigration because their political leaders want it.

    June 8, 2012 at 4:58 pm | Reply
  4. JProbst

    Why don't we start by relaxing H1 work visa requirements. The tech and sciences sectors are hurting from the lack of talent. We should be more easily able to import workforce where it's needed.

    June 8, 2012 at 4:59 pm | Reply
  5. Bill

    Of course we discriminate. All people do. If you're not like me, you're different and that can't be good. It has nothing to do with what country you're from. If I'm from Texas and you're from Oklahoma, you're bad.

    June 8, 2012 at 4:59 pm | Reply
    • schilaufer

      Well, to be fair, TX>OK. Just saying.

      June 8, 2012 at 5:02 pm | Reply
      • Rick Perry

        Go Spurs!

        June 8, 2012 at 8:54 pm |
  6. schilaufer

    How about compromise? All immigrants can have an easy path the citizenship. We aim to grant citizenship to anyone who wants it in about 12 months from the day they first cross the border. Let us process it for free, and then they can pay the fees through the next 3 tax returns ($120/year). Then we restrict all new immigrants from receiving any welfare of any kind for the first 6 years. It makes sense because it takes about 7 years to become a citizen anyway. If they can't get needed welfare, they can always go back home. And besides, according to Phillippe, they don't need welfare nor want it. So this should be a slam dunk.

    June 8, 2012 at 5:01 pm | Reply
    • petewillett

      I actually think your ideas for compromise – or some less oversimplified version of them – are mostly pretty good. But you're quite wrong if you think "they can always go back home." This is patently untrue. Search "Uyghurs" for an example.

      June 8, 2012 at 5:05 pm | Reply
  7. Bonnie

    1- the U.S. is drowning in the jobless, the economy is in shambles. Fed agencies are shutting off the benefits, in particular, Unemployment. The corp. are shutting their offices in the U.S. & opening same offices overseas. There are NO jobs here. We do NOT need more people here at the moment. We need a breather and a chance to recover, if possible.

    2- What types of work can these people do? Even White Collar jobs are leaving the country. What can thse people contribute here?

    3 – Why aren't they staying in their country of birth and taking up the slack – new jobs opening – there, overseas?

    June 8, 2012 at 5:02 pm | Reply

    YES WE NEED IMMIGRANTS.....but only from Europe, Russia, Canada, or Australia. These ones don't bring crime and they become productive members of society.

    June 8, 2012 at 5:02 pm | Reply
    • KeepOurFreedoms

      Russia? Are you serious? You've never heard of the Russian Mafia here?

      June 8, 2012 at 5:07 pm | Reply
  9. KeepOurFreedoms

    What we need is for our government to stop pay illegals and immigrants. What we need is the government to stop giving our money to other countries. Let's keep our money here. So many people can't get jobs now and the government is supporting other countries. That's not just sick, it's anti American.

    June 8, 2012 at 5:04 pm | Reply
  10. ptsdLOADING

    Oh...now, 40 years after the civil rights movement we hear from the peanut gallery!

    June 8, 2012 at 5:05 pm | Reply
  11. Larry

    One more who doesn't get the simplest fact. We have NO PROBLEM with immigrants. Those are people who legally come to the United States. What we have a problem with is ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS. They've already shown a complete disregard for our legal system, so why on EARTH should we do anything but ship them back to their country of origin.

    June 8, 2012 at 5:05 pm | Reply
  12. IReadit3

    Typical slippery misleading distractive argument. We are not against immigrants. We are against ILLEGAL immigrants. I want immigrants to continue to flood here as my ancestors did. I simply refuse to remove the requirement that you sign the guest book on the way in signifying that you are coming here to become an American with a proud heritage that you are free to celebrate. There is no moral danger in desiring that entrance into another country requires compliance with their laws. To the contrary, encouraging through manipulative opinion pieces such as this in an attempt to shame people into support a fabricated a right to forgoe that responsibility is in fact the moral cess pool.

    June 8, 2012 at 5:05 pm | Reply
  13. JLB

    Open immigration would bring us more of those who would come to live off the welfare state and those whose criminal activities would be more lucrative here than those whose hard work and intelligence would contribute to our prosperity. The line is long because the first two must be weeded out and the latter welcomed.

    June 8, 2012 at 5:10 pm | Reply
  14. labandme

    The article says: "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."

    I disagree and you can tell a real American didn't write the article. We need to pick and chose our immigrants and stop importing poverty and dangerous, disfunctional people into the U.S. and Canada. In that regard I'd tell the Arab and African countries to keep their own people...we don't want them. We need immigrants with skills, ambition and who respect the fact they are now Americans. Much like the immigrants that founded this country.

    June 8, 2012 at 5:11 pm | Reply
  15. Alex

    We need immigrants like we need a hole in the head. At a time of high unemployment that the know-nothings are calling for more immigrants is amazing.

    Let's face it – the call for more immigrants comes from Democrats who see them as potential voters; and from big business who want cheap labor. Nobody else benefits.

    Help America by ending ALL immigration and by imposing tariffs on imported goods.

    America First!

    June 8, 2012 at 5:11 pm | Reply
  16. Stan

    I'll tell you like Ted Turner said 10 years ago...there's too many %^$ people!

    June 8, 2012 at 5:12 pm | Reply
  17. Daniel

    This will probably go down as one of the most ill-researched, weakest prepared and factual-lacking article on the topic of immigration that i've ever seen...

    June 8, 2012 at 5:15 pm | Reply
  18. SARA

    All of you so called yourselves American talking nonsense the immigrants are right now working and getting ahead and you lazy people are jealous

    June 8, 2012 at 5:19 pm | Reply
    • Stan

      I'm an American and I'm not jealous of you or any immigrant. But at this point, people need to stay in their own countries and work things out there. If there are too many people, then stop having babies. Technology makes us all connected together across the globe. There's no need for me to travel to Australia or South Africa for a job. Stay where you are...if the political climate is bad, then put your energy into changing it there. Adapt and don't push your problems onto another country. I know I won't.

      June 8, 2012 at 5:26 pm | Reply
  19. maria

    All you so called americans who are complaining about immigrants, you should first realize that your ancestors were immigrants. The only people who really are non immigrants are the american indians. So, before you complain about immigrants you should clean your own house. Go back to where your ancestors came from.

    Also, my mother came here as an immigrant in the late 1940's. I came here in the early 1950's. I have 3 children – two of which are super rich – because my husband and I worked hard and thought them the value of hard work. My other child is doing okay but not rich. She also works super hard but is not ambitious as my sons are. My children are providing jobs for other people. Immigrants are a breath of fresh air, most of the time they stimulate the economy. If my mother did not come here as an immigrant the people that my sons now employ would not be working. Stop worrying about immigrants and start working hard, stop complaining, and be positive and maybe your children will enlighten the world and be a positive influence to other people. Stop complaining about immigrants to hide your own failure.

    June 8, 2012 at 5:21 pm | Reply
  20. Sandman01DE

    Another ridiculous argument that starts with the erroneous premise that a large portion of Americans, implied republicans, are against immigration. How many times does it have to be said that most conservatives are not against immigration? It sounds good in a talking point but it is nonsense. Conservatives are against uncontrolled illegal (defined "not obeying our laws and policies") immigration. There is a HUGE difference. Does the author understand this difference, or are they just trying to spread mistruth to stir up the masses? Do we or do we not, as a nation, have a right to control who and how many immigrants get to move here? Because every other nation seems to have that right, even Mexico, but somehow it is discrimination to want to deport someone who just runs across a border fence at night and jumps ahead of all the other people waiting for a chance to migrate to this country. When we had vast underpopulated lands, we let a lot of people into the U.S. Now we don't, so we let those who can prove that they will add more than they will take from our society in and we have a lottery, waiting line, and quotas for everyone else. If you are a felon, sorry, but we don't want you. We have enough of our own. Is that SO unreasonable?!

    June 8, 2012 at 5:23 pm | Reply
  21. Alex

    I resist entirely the attempts of big business and the liberal left to turn America into a third world country through its immigration policies. We are a EUROPEAN nation first and foremost and forever and all the better off for it.

    God save America.

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

      Go back to Europe or whatever country your from. The American Native Indian tribal nations don't need your disease, greed, destruction, death, jealousy, snobbishness, robberies, land-grabbing race into my land. So go home and get lost.

      June 8, 2012 at 5:32 pm | Reply
  22. Alex

    America is and always will be a racially- and ethnically- European nation.

    America first!

    June 8, 2012 at 5:25 pm | Reply
    • Pax Americana

      Hi Sasha, your people don't deserve to be here. Get the eff out.

      June 8, 2012 at 5:33 pm | Reply
  23. Lingam

    A better rhetorical question might be "Why does America need immigrants?"

    June 8, 2012 at 5:27 pm | Reply
  24. Rob

    Only American Indians Native Americans,

    So non American Indians all are were born to Immigrants, So if there is no immigrants their no America!!

    So America needs very good immigration system, People are waiting almost ten or more years to get a green card.

    America Need to change Immigration policies!!

    June 8, 2012 at 5:27 pm | Reply
    • Lingam

      Sorry Rob, "American Indians" were immigrants too.

      June 8, 2012 at 5:29 pm | Reply
  25. Alex

    Say NO to any and all forms of immigration.

    For a better America.

    June 8, 2012 at 5:28 pm | Reply
    • zaglossus

      Agreed; the United States is already overpopulated. The idea of growth as the driver of prosperity has reached its end.

      June 8, 2012 at 10:37 pm | Reply
  26. Genold

    seems like the only people immigrating to the U.S. are Africans, people from the Middle East, and Asians. I guess our laws favor turning America into a third world intellectually challenged cesspool.

    June 8, 2012 at 5:30 pm | Reply
  27. Stan

    You don't have to have a lot of children to have a happy life. ~Me

    June 8, 2012 at 5:32 pm | Reply
  28. hearst14

    Africa for the Africans. Asia for the Asians. White countries for EVERYONE!!!

    June 8, 2012 at 5:35 pm | Reply
  29. Kuzma

    Saying "I like/dislike immigation" makes no sense just as saying I like/dislike weather. First, all the immigration must be legal. If immigration law needs changes – let's discuss them, but there should be no illegal imigration.
    Second, not all the people should be allowed to immigrate and the main criteria should be if they want to become Americans or just want to get a piece of this "pie" because it tastes great. Just over 20 years ago we came as immigratns and therefore, I can certainly appreciate this opportunity. When we bought our first house on a first holiday I was embarrassed because all neighbors put up American flags and we did not have one yet. Now, about 20 years later we are the only ones on the street who put up the flag on the Memorial day. When we go for an evening walk and meet other folks living here, most of them say Hi amd smile, and we see a lot of Chinees, Indians, latinos and even couple of Russians. Probably most of them are nice people, but are they Americans in their hearts or just beariers of the American passports as a pass to comfortable living?

    June 8, 2012 at 5:44 pm | Reply
  30. Agreed, but

    I agree that the U.S. needs immigrants. They are a rich part of the fabric of our nation. This article turns a blind eye, however, to the fact that those who discourage immigration are by and large discouraging ILLEGAL immigration. Legal immigrants who come to this country with a genuine wish to become citizens and contribute to the economy should be welcomed. Those who try to enter illegally, however, should be turned away, or should be subjected to the same process by which legal immigrants become citizens or obtain green cards. Illegal immigration disrespects our country's laws and should not be sanctioned or rewarded with welfare.

    June 8, 2012 at 5:55 pm | Reply
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