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. iceload9

    So as long as you have yours Fareed, throw open the doors. The millions of laid off IT workers are on their own. As long as we can get cheap H1B Visa labor, too bad for the rest.

    June 8, 2012 at 12:48 pm | Reply
    • Indian

      Legall immigration and illegal immigration are two different things. Oh wait I forgot u want all of america to be white.

      June 8, 2012 at 1:04 pm | Reply
  2. Andree

    Well said Bill Boyer. i am a legal immmigrant from France, came to this Great Country in 1946,
    became a Naturalized American, worked all my life, paying all my dues. I feel that the Illegals from the south only come for the money, don't assimilate , they should be thrown out of the Country.

    June 8, 2012 at 12:49 pm | Reply
    • agincourt98

      Right because in the past assimilation was immediate. Little Italy, China Town, Little Vietnam, the Irish towns....all in our imagination. Do any of you disrespecting immigrants actually know the history of your nation? Immigrants tended to keep their language and culture. The first and second generations blended in. Why should 2012's immigrants be any different?

      June 8, 2012 at 3:59 pm | Reply
  3. Tee

    So we can start finding dismembered torture victims here in the States like the story of the 15 they just found in Mexico.

    June 8, 2012 at 1:14 pm | Reply
  4. dre

    The real problem is that white people are facing out not just in the US but also in Europe. But that is not the fault of the non white immigrants, blame abortion and the effects of the materialistic west in the demographic shift, and the fact that whites prefer to make money than to raise kids, and then when they can't have kids they go and adopt black babies

    June 8, 2012 at 1:17 pm | Reply
    • Michael

      True. The majority of those seeking abortions in America are white women.

      June 8, 2012 at 2:02 pm | Reply
  5. Bill

    Yes, it would be a wonderful world if American could supply employment to every poverty stricken sole in the world, but that just does not work. Yes, an influx of uneducated or unskilled workers into a society does have a detrimental effect, both for the domestic population and the immigrant.
    America should be making it easier for skilled workers to enter the country. As the author states above, yes there are exceptions of the uneducated or unskilled coming to this country and making something of themselves. The vast majority, however, end up in the lower 50% of income earners or less. The reality dictates that a nation can be generous, but not philanthropists who damage their own nation in order to save everyone else. This is incredibly naive.

    June 8, 2012 at 1:24 pm | Reply
  6. Smitty

    Wasn't North America built by immigrants? Really the only native people are the indians. My grandparents came here after WW2 from England so that makes me an immigrant, and a thankful one.

    June 8, 2012 at 1:37 pm | Reply
  7. Bribarian

    more absolute nonsense from the globalist network

    June 8, 2012 at 1:37 pm | Reply
  8. Bribarian

    The economy is thinking, how exactly is adding another 50 million Mexicans going to solve the problem? It should be clear a lot of these networks want America destroyed.

    June 8, 2012 at 1:44 pm | Reply
    • BK

      Regardless of what your opinion is on the article itself, do you realize what a STUPID thing to say that is? As if a company that relies on the economy to function would wish it to fall. Idiot.

      June 8, 2012 at 1:57 pm | Reply
  9. The most important word

    The headline should read "Why America needs LEGAL immigrants".

    June 8, 2012 at 1:53 pm | Reply
    • Jess

      amen

      June 8, 2012 at 2:12 pm | Reply
  10. S.T.

    I don't believe that the majority of people, in this country or others, have too many issues with immigrants. It is the ILLEGAL immigrants that people have a problem with, no matter where they come from.

    June 8, 2012 at 1:53 pm | Reply
    • Pete

      Wow. Somebody finally said it. There is a LEGAL, and honorable, way to come into and contribute to this great country.

      June 8, 2012 at 2:10 pm | Reply
    • ES

      Majority of people in the US have a problem even with LEGAL immigration because they are seen as taking away american jobs.

      June 8, 2012 at 3:03 pm | Reply
  11. uh huh

    Absolutely! We need LEGAL immigrants. We need people who want to contribute and not take away from this once great country.

    June 8, 2012 at 1:59 pm | Reply
  12. Bill

    Yea. White ones.

    June 8, 2012 at 1:59 pm | Reply
    • Michael

      And black ones, and yellow ones, and brown ones...

      June 8, 2012 at 2:04 pm | Reply
  13. From an immigant family

    My family immigrated here, learned the language, became citizens, fought, and died, in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq. Now we hear "Why don't you speak (another language)?", and boos at the Rose Bowl and dodger Stadium when the Star Spangled Banner is played.

    Today's LA Times bsuiness section talks about lack of skilled employees. How many of the companies train the employees?

    As for those taxes illegals pay, working in law enforcement, I know that a large portion of those are on stolen Social Security numbers. Ask the victims.

    Immigrants are not the same as "guest workers" and certainly are not "illegals".

    June 8, 2012 at 2:00 pm | Reply
  14. Joe

    No, we do not need immigrants. What we "need" is for ALL illegal immigrants and their anchor babies to be deported, yesterday!

    June 8, 2012 at 2:02 pm | Reply
  15. R.P.

    THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH IMMIGRANTS. YOU ARE TWISTING THE ISSUE BECAUSE YOU ARE A LIBERAL.

    WHAT I (CONSERVATIVE) HAVE A PROBLEM WITH IS THE FREE HANDOUTS THEY GET FROM MY POCKET.

    OPEN THE BOARDERS TO ALL !
    THEN ... END WELLFARE, END HANDOUTS, END ALL GOVT ASSISTANCE.

    LET ANYONE IN WHO WANTS IN, AND THEN MAKE THEM WORK TO SUCCEED ... AND ROT IN A GUTTER IF THEY WONT WORK.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:03 pm | Reply
    • creighdon

      up urs cholo

      June 8, 2012 at 2:09 pm | Reply
      • R.P.

        ^ Oh look one of the freeloaders.

        June 8, 2012 at 2:19 pm |
    • agincourt98

      Borders
      Welfare

      Try again

      June 8, 2012 at 4:00 pm | Reply
  16. oddjob2234

    Yes, America needs immigrants. This whole thing is a ludicrous false choice. Philippe Legrain clearly thinks we should have completely open borders, that the people who live here in the US should allow a come one come all free immigration policy.

    What would happen? What would be the average skill level of Americans, under such a policy? What would the quality of life, and population density look like? Unlimited immigration would make all those things worse, without any doubt at all.

    Phillippe Legrain points to the immigrants that should be allowed in, and are allowed in, as examples of why every person should be allowed in, but the argument just isn't valid.

    The way to correct what Phillippe Legrain sees as a great injustice is not to allow all those with the means to move here to do so, but to help them to lift their own economies and standards of living, in their home countries. The other strategy will surely lead to a race to the bottom.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:03 pm | Reply
    • William M

      Bingo!!!!!!!

      June 8, 2012 at 2:42 pm | Reply
  17. George Washington

    America is for Americans..People like this should be sent out immediately..If they have naturalized . revoke citizenship for sedition. Mexico is for Mexicans...nation state has a definition moron

    June 8, 2012 at 2:04 pm | Reply
  18. NB

    I would like to draw the distinction between legal and illegal immigration in this discourse and discussion. While everyone is born "equal" under God, not everyone has an equal right to be in our country (or any other for that matter). If you are here legally, you are more than welcome. If you have come to visit legally, you are more than welcome. If you have come here through NO fault of your own, then yes, I welcome you with open arms. How you arrived here DOES matter. If you did not arrive here legally, you are illegal - you are NOT welcome.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:04 pm | Reply
  19. Disanitnodicos

    Phillipe Legrain asks, why is it still acceptable to have an opinion different from mine?

    June 8, 2012 at 2:04 pm | Reply
  20. teapartymember

    Question: How many illegal mexicans does it take to shingle a roof?
    Answer: It depends how thin you slice them.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:05 pm | Reply
  21. David

    INCORRECT. We don't need these unwanted and uneeded foreigners that won't feather into our society. I feel like a foreigner in my own country. It has to stop. We are full.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:05 pm | Reply
  22. Rob

    Immigration "policies?" You basically just have to get here and you win. What should they be flown in first-class at taxpayer expense?

    June 8, 2012 at 2:06 pm | Reply
  23. William

    People dont care where you were born. The issue is if you used mules and paid your way illegally into the USA. If you want to be part of the American family than go through the steps we have put into place. Its much easier to immigrate to America than become a citizen of Mexico. The USA allows duel citizenship but countries such as India make you give up your citizenship to become a resident there or immigrate to the USA.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:06 pm | Reply
    • Bill

      The realty is that people do care where you come from. My wife, who is foreign born, is a physician who is not treated the same as her American counterparts. Though she tests higher, and performs better, they still do not put her in the same class and openly state that "foreign medical" graduates are not as good. This is from professionals, mind you.

      June 8, 2012 at 2:09 pm | Reply
      • dkew09

        not specifically saying this is true for your wife bill I did hear that foreigners can get their degrees overseas (which are of lower standards) and then come to america and practice. I guess i can see why they would be a little upset. but like you said if your wife tests higher and all then this is an injustice.

        June 8, 2012 at 3:35 pm |
  24. MikeM

    CNN and the liberals often use "Immigrants" to cover both legal and illegal. They see some benefit in doing so. The issue, as many have pointed above, is legal is OK. Illegal is not.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:07 pm | Reply
  25. JimDaytona

    First off, the Republicans never would allow any potential immigaration that might vote Dem. I mean come on, the GOP is working as hard as necessary to "purge" the voting rolls of minorities, students, and senior citizens. Guys like Scott of FL is a fraud and so many of those GOP'ers are, you know the ones I am speaking about, they will do what is necessary to keep Obama from being relected.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:07 pm | Reply
    • allaboutbuff

      Do you want to know who is the real fraud? Those who support these illegal immigrants when they are worried about unemployment. The Democrats who give our party a bad name by propping up these illegals should be voted out of office if our economy is to be improved. The GOP and the Democrats whould be united on this issue, not opposed!

      June 8, 2012 at 2:10 pm | Reply
      • JimDaytona

        You know nothing of what tou speak except you sound like a Rep.

        June 8, 2012 at 4:38 pm |
  26. allabotubuff

    We clamor again for to do what is right- allow LEGAL immigrants to enjoy this country as many have had in the past, but ILLEGAL immigrants should be punished severely for their continued defiance of our laws and those who employ them should suffer.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:07 pm | Reply
  27. Ian

    We don't need immigrants what we need is to stop giving handouts to the lazy in this country. When 49% of the country doesn't pay federal income taxes then something is not right.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:07 pm | Reply
    • Keith

      Everyone that works pays taxes, quit being ignorant.

      June 9, 2012 at 10:38 pm | Reply
  28. susanna king

    I have no problem with immigrants comming to America as long as want to become citiens and arent crimnals.We need all the decent hard working new people who want to build this country

    June 8, 2012 at 2:07 pm | Reply
  29. Phyllis

    Yes, immigrants are good for America. We let in 1 million of them legally every year. But that is enough.

    If you haven't noticed, our roads are congested and our infrastructure is crumbling and sprawl is marching across the land. More people will not help these problems. A recent worldwide Gallup Poll found 150 million people would like to move here. Sorry, that won't work. These wonderful people should bloom where they are planted and help the countries they are in.

    Also, our culture is changing fast enough right now. Immigration has come in waves in this country. We have had a period of high immigration (legal and illegal), and now we need a slower pace while we all learn to get along. If you push more immigration now it will exacerbate tensions. And by the way, we have plenty of unemployed here who could fill jobs, without giving the jobs to more immigrants.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:08 pm | Reply
    • ES

      Population of Germany is 80 mil for a terriroty 27 times smaller than USA, and their infrustructure is fine. If US had the same density as Germany we would've had 300*27 = 8 bil people? US is congested because it is not planned well and is not maintained. Because everyone has an "aemrican dream" to live in a house in the suburbs consuming huge amount of resources.

      June 8, 2012 at 3:10 pm | Reply
  30. dscon

    who says we don't need immigrants?
    hell, send us all the "legal" immigrants that the current immigration laws will allow!
    no problem.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:09 pm | Reply
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