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. Me

    If we let immigrants in, put them in our inner city ghettos, and take our citizens who are in the ghettos and put them in the prosperous jobs the immigrants think they are going to receive when they get here. If you think immigration comes before unemployed Americans, then you need to leave. We don't need people who do not speak english, we do not need people who speak broken english, we don't need two different math systems, we don't need 'americans' who wave another country's flag, and on and on. We all need to be on the same page and immigration puts us all on different pages. The only people who thinks we need immigrants are immigrants wanting in. Put em in the ghettos if they want in, and get native born Americans OUT of the ghettos.

    June 8, 2012 at 6:27 pm | Reply
    • ES

      Immigrants are not slaves , you cannot "put" them anywhere. And yes, many are worth more than the unemployed americans that couldn't even finish high school fully paid by taxpayers.

      June 8, 2012 at 10:05 pm | Reply
    • Bernard Dibella

      What makes you so special? They'll work wherever they choose to work. Nazi pig.

      June 9, 2012 at 4:17 am | Reply
  2. Mike

    The key with regulating immigration is to make sure that the population growth of the nation does not exceed the economic growth. If it does then immigrants are indeed competing with existing US citizen's ability to get a job. The population growth can easily occur faster than economic growth can occur just look at China they have the 2nd largest economy in the world and yet their standard of living is relatively low because their population to GDP ratio is low.

    Furthermore, the author of this article is assuming that every immigrant and their children are going to be super hard working and productive. While many immigrants are hard working, there is quite a number who are not.

    June 8, 2012 at 6:55 pm | Reply
  3. Tara

    I honestly don't believe we discriminate on where a person is born so much as HOW they got into this country. If they are here illegally, regardless of whether they come over themselves or if their parents brought them, they are criminals. I see no problem discriminating against those who did not use the proper, legal channels to enter the US as they have no right to be here. Why should they be treated the same and given the same opportunities as those who took the time and effort to obey the law and enter the US legally?

    June 8, 2012 at 7:09 pm | Reply
    • Bernard Dibella

      How did your ancestors get into this country? By force? The original Mexican – The Toultec, Aztec, Olmec, Mayan, etc. has traveled this land back and forth across the Rio Grande for thousands of years. The Modern day Mexican is predominately Mestizo which is half European/Northern African (Arab) and half Indian. The Mexican predates Christ's birth in North America and Mexico. You're a racist idiot.

      June 9, 2012 at 4:16 am | Reply
  4. savethechildren

    Immigrants are needed to drive down the wages of white people and make it harder for whites to have homes and families. Its about the program of white genocide aimed at the white race.

    Look closely.

    You have 1. Massive immigration, 2.To white countries only 3. Border laws suspended Coupled with: 4. Forced integration 5. Racial preference to non-whites 6. Coerced tolerance 7. Socially engineered assimilation/genetic blending

    What is the end result of diversity? Genocide, white genocide.

    June 8, 2012 at 7:11 pm | Reply
  5. HillClimber

    The United States can not continue to allow the problems of the world to come here for resolution. The quality of our education system, our infrastructure, our social services and certainly the overall intelligence of our people has been severely damaged by our failure to prevent access to this country. The world needs improvement, not improvement of an individual, and this improvement can not be carried out in the United States. Let Calderon tell his people how he is going to educate them, feed them, house them, clothe them, and we'll do the same for American Citizens. A statement was made that it was amazing how the son of a Kenyan became the President of the United States and I say "Why was it not an the son or daughter of an American that became President?" Americans can not continue to be the destination of the world's cast offs and the breadbasket for the world. I have liked my country before the start of alien destruction but it has become so diluted and third world like that I no longer recognize my countrymen. I want access to my country stopped, and mass deportation of illegal aliens.

    June 8, 2012 at 7:38 pm | Reply
  6. sharat

    Immigration is nothing but a means to take over White Countries in the name of liberty, Multiculturalism blah blah...Why isn't Multiculturalism done in Saudi Arabia, Iran , Pakistan, Afghanistan etc.....

    June 8, 2012 at 7:52 pm | Reply
    • Bernard Dibella

      America is a "white" country? That's news to me....and most people. You're an idiot.

      June 9, 2012 at 4:11 am | Reply
  7. Kunst

    If everyone born in America had to compete on a merit basis with the whole world for US citizenship, most ot them would be out of here.

    June 8, 2012 at 7:57 pm | Reply
  8. Dr Veruju

    The United States of America does not need any more immigrants, it is over loaded already.
    We have a situation now where the last few grains of the value of US citizenship are being steadily washed out by totally outrageous levels of legal immigration, let alone illegal immigration.
    20 million plus unemployed citizens, competing with an additional 125,000* work visa waving foreigners each and every month regardless of the conditions faced by those citizens.
    Who are you trying to kid?

    It is time to put a halt to all employment based immigration and put the citizens back to work.


    June 8, 2012 at 8:02 pm | Reply
    • MC

      I still am confounded by this argument I see again and again. The economy is as big as the (productive) population. More people here does not equal "stealing" jobs as if there were only so many jobs to go around. If that were true, every time someone graduated high school or college, they would be stealing jobs. The economy is not a pie that does not change or grow. Every new person purchases transportation, housing, goods. Indeed, its often said we make out well when we bring in workers whose raising and education were paid for in another country, and now they're ready to work and pay taxes here.

      June 8, 2012 at 9:33 pm | Reply
      • Dr Veruju

        So the argument confounds you.
        Here goes: The are in excess of 20 million citizens of this country who cannot find work.
        So the US government imports 125,000* work visa waving foreign nationals into the labor market each and every month with absolutely no regard to the conditions faced by its citizens.
        US citizens are in effect being cleansed from the work force in favor of cheap foreign labor, that is unacceptable in the extreme.
        Also as a direct result of this flooding of the US labor market wages and living standards for most have been at best stagnant for well over a decade. No the US labor market is not immune from the laws of supply and demand.
        If the economy is being grown by immigration then it is entirely at the expense of US citizens.
        In short we should look after our own first.


        June 9, 2012 at 1:58 am |
      • JaySF

        Your argument about stealing jobs doesn't hold water. The people graduating from high school and college are already here. Why should they have to compete with immigrants? Or should we just expect a percentage of them to move to Mexico, India, and the Philippines to find jobs?

        June 9, 2012 at 3:04 pm |
  9. Mandor

    I have no objection to people from any particular nation immigrating to the united states, BUT, it is only right and proper that the US government limit how much immigration it wants, and from where, in any given year. And that is not going to allow everyone in the whole world who wants to come here in.

    Any nation must have the power to control it's borders, and any nation must have the right to say who can come in and who cannot. If you do not accept those, then you do not accept the notion of nationhood itself, and at that point, we're done talking.

    I understand that entreprenurial souls from far and wide would like to come here, and most of them probably would proper and not be a drain on our economy. But it would be better, long term, for them to help in the development of their OWN nations. Africa does not need to remain a place where people try to escape from. It can become something better. But not if the very people who COULD transform it flee at their first chance.

    June 8, 2012 at 8:20 pm | Reply
  10. Gullible American

    Americans are lazy & fat, and on welfare, so we need illegals to do our jobs. Plain and simple.

    June 8, 2012 at 8:48 pm | Reply
  11. juan

    we accept more immigrants than any country on earth.

    we do not need more.

    June 8, 2012 at 9:43 pm | Reply
  12. Lou Kless

    We are all Guinea Pig Lemmings in the Big Social Global Experiment, In the Big American GiveAway of the Century.
    Which I would be so Happy About, If Only the Immigrants Liked Me.

    June 8, 2012 at 9:53 pm | Reply
  13. Robert Platt Bell

    If you look at population growth in this country, you will see it is stalling. Check out the "age pyramid" on the Census bureau website – it looks more like a minaret.

    No younger workers at the base to PAY IN to the system, while a lot of retirees (or soon-to-be retirees) are cashing out.

    President Bush proposed a humanitarian immigration reform that would have allowed REGISTERED guest WORKERS to come here and WORK and pay taxes (including social security taxes). Shirkers would have been sent back.

    He was shouted down by his own party.

    We are all immigrants, sons of immigrants, or grandsons of immigrants, or whatever. Even the Indians came here across the Bering strait.

    Let immigrants in – people who will work, of course. Send the rest back – including the nativists who are all on the dole.

    June 8, 2012 at 10:33 pm | Reply
    • tzrxsmith

      Make it harder for genuine Americans here right now, unemployed, to get a job? No thanks. When Americans are near full employment, we can talk about bringing new ones in-new workers that generally work for less, demean the occupations because of that, tolerate worse working conditions, etc...We have enough high-skill labor right here at home.

      June 8, 2012 at 10:42 pm | Reply
    • Mark

      You are wrong. The solution here is to encourage White americans to have more children. The brown skinned people have their own countries to live in. Let them stay there and make their own countrries better. There is no need to import all of these foreign people. It is harmful to flood the white domains with all of these foreigners who dont belong here, they have their own countries. and continents.

      June 11, 2012 at 5:18 pm | Reply
  14. henry1941

    Immigrants can be a blessing or a curse. Sweden has had a relatively open immigration policy for the past 50 years. It has a good demographic balance and immigrants have improved the country in many ways.

    On the other hand, especially in more recent times, a few immigrant groups have brought with them values and customs that are at odds with the host society, to the point that they have become a disruptive burden. Part of the trouble is that the Swedish tax system punishes marginal labour and makes self-employment difficult. A few years ago the tax authorities had a "crack-down" on restaurant owners, taxi drivers and market traders – just the activities which give immigrants a foothold and do not demand good language skills.

    This is not clever.

    There is also the religious and associated cultural dimension.If one considers immigrants from Arab countries, for instance, it seems that the Christian groups are able to integrate with little difficulty. This has to be borne in mind also.

    June 8, 2012 at 10:45 pm | Reply
  15. Noel

    "Why America Needs Immigrants"

    It doesn't. This is another bed wetting liberal spew job aimed at further degrading American culture and swamping our invisible resources that President Oblunder squandered.

    No immigrants, go home, go away, we're closed, no soup for you.

    June 8, 2012 at 10:53 pm | Reply
    • Shaan

      Mitt Romney said once that most fortune 500's companies are started by immigrants. China, India Singapore and even the Middle East are catching up to the US and rapidly. If we are to remain the best nation, we need to reform immigration and fast. You're a racist sir.

      June 8, 2012 at 11:54 pm | Reply
  16. NJ

    We need immigration from developed Christian countries, not from any disgusting third-world countries!!

    June 8, 2012 at 11:38 pm | Reply
    • Brahms

      No, no, no, people are all the same, the exact same (except whites,they're different). Everybody knows that. Africa is the awful place it is because of whites. White people are evil and white countries are evil – never heard of Hitler?

      I learned that in my re-education camp.

      June 9, 2012 at 1:22 am | Reply
  17. crbrianb

    "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."

    This author has not been to a Lowe's parking lot in any border state. Why hire American's at American wages when you can hire a bunch of men who don't speak English below minimum wage. They then share an apartment so that they can afford to send half of their below standard of living wages back to their country of origin. The same is NOT true of immigrants.

    June 8, 2012 at 11:46 pm | Reply
  18. Mandor

    I would not object to a system where you have to show you have the means to support yourself, or find another family to sponsor you, and have THAT family be on the hook to support you if you can't make it, before you can immigrate. I don't expect that anytime soon... but it seems sensible enough to me...

    June 9, 2012 at 12:05 am | Reply
  19. Lars

    I like ethnic foods. Tacos, Orange chicken, egg roll, sushie, curry, cous-cous, polskakielbasa. how i can enjoy if no immigrant here to cook.

    June 9, 2012 at 12:16 am | Reply
    • Bernard Dibella

      You're awesome. I love the cultures and their foods and music and women.......I love people.

      June 9, 2012 at 4:09 am | Reply
      • HYDRO

        The problem is that most of these people you "love" do not love you and want to see you dead.

        June 9, 2012 at 2:56 pm |
  20. Adam

    Okay, I'm a fairly educated individual. But forgive me, for I am not in a mood to respond to this article with a diatribe of reasons why this article and many of this author's articles show his very poor judgement and odd conclusions, many of the preceding responses have accomplished this. Fareed has a history of writing articles that examines the narrow world that only resides between his ears. However, I must say that these immigrants should solve the problems of their own countries and not flee from them like cowards.

    Therefore, I request that CNN terminate this journalist. May he find a job in the open border America that he preaches.

    Adam Pitt

    June 9, 2012 at 12:17 am | Reply
    • Mark

      Ditto. I couldnt agree more.

      June 11, 2012 at 5:13 pm | Reply
  21. DebG

    We need a better class of immigrant than we currently have. End automatic citizenship for those born in the US as it only encourages people to come here and overflow our emergency rooms. End chain migration. Do we really need elderly parents or illiterate siblings, If we had people qualifying based upon education level and English-speaking abilities we'd be better off. Other countries set standards for entry, yet those who could contribute immediately cannot come. Doesn't make sense. Once again our politicians have sold us out. Establish standards for entry into this country.

    June 9, 2012 at 12:27 am | Reply
  22. Joemmm

    Zakaria arguments sound reasonable. But let take one of them and apply its logic. That there is no harm letting people in without regard to ability or education nor the number. I will agree with him it is hard to tell if a poor person from Kenya will contribute less than a PhD from India or their children to the USA. But if Zakaria argument that letting them in unfretted then why not let all the opposed people he mentions in and even pay for their travel here. The size of the flux of people andthe sheer number will overwhelm our resources and the growth of the resources. I can't imagine a word where we have 4 billion people. For that is what we would have if we had open borders and reduced the cost of moving here to zero from all the countries in the world.

    June 9, 2012 at 12:38 am | Reply
  23. Brahms

    The problem is not simply immigration but non-white immigration.

    June 9, 2012 at 1:14 am | Reply
    • Bernard Dibella

      Nazi racist pig. American doesn't need your "kind"

      June 9, 2012 at 4:07 am | Reply
  24. Sriraa

    Why is anti-immigration and discrimination being seen in the same light? We may not discriminate against our neighbours, we may actually be concerned about them and want to help when necessary. But we would not want them all to land up in our home with their troubles.

    Safe guarding ones own welfare and culture against invasion by others is not wrong.

    June 9, 2012 at 1:35 am | Reply
  25. Phil in Oregon

    The US needs immigrants. It does not need 12 million ILLEGAL immigrants. That's 12 million people who can be uprooted from whatever they're doing, sent back to their country of origin and refused entry into the US for 3 years. Just imagine if half your fire department was suddenly gone. Or half your National Guard unit. The illegals really need to get their status right, so this doesn't happen.

    June 9, 2012 at 1:49 am | Reply
  26. Chs

    What drivel!
    In the 1940's, 50's and 60's, when the American middle class was more vibrant and successful than at any other time in history, the percentage of American citizens born abroad reached its lowest point in our history, at less than 5% of the total US population. That has almost tripled now, with terrible consequences.

    But don't take it for me. It's definitely a good idea to do the EXACT OPPOSITE of what made this country great:
    let's import hordes of illiterate peasants to depress wages and lower corporate/income taxes to the lowest levels in eighty years. That's a real secret for success.
    And all the while median incomes continue to stagnate.

    June 9, 2012 at 2:35 am | Reply
  27. Bernard Dibella

    With all of the over educated young spoiled professionals unwilling to "work" for a living we will need this young workforce to work as skilled electricians, plumbers, carpenters, mechanics, police officers, postal workers etc. These thousands of young workers will serve in our military and pay much need taxes to fund the growing social security costs. The majority of first and second generation Mexican American children are Christians. A great majority of the liberally educated young adults are leaving the Christian Church and becoming Humanists, Atheists etc. so these kids will help to offset this exit from the Christian faith. As more and more young women are going to college, many of these young ladies are putting off marriage and motherhood. Many are foregoing it completely. Many of these young Mexican women prefer to be stay at home mothers and wives. More and more young educated men are marrying these attractive, kind, loyal women. I have a friend who's been married for ten years to a pretty Mexican Women. They have two beautiful young girls. He's the happiest person I know. I'm glad that our southern neighbors are Mexicans and not Syria, Viet Nam, Nigeria or Pakistan. They are as big a part of American history as England.

    June 9, 2012 at 4:04 am | Reply
    • ikenelson

      Unfortunately, about 45% of children of immigrants from Mexico and Central America end up dropping out of school. Fewer than 10 percent graduate from college, and almost none get degrees in specialized technical fields.

      This is not my opinion, this is hard fact.

      June 9, 2012 at 6:55 am | Reply
  28. Gus

    We need more immigrants just like we need another hole in our a**. Our own citizens are out of work with illegals taking more and more jobs.

    June 9, 2012 at 4:16 am | Reply
  29. Lee Gal Immi-Grant (Prof)

    Thank you for the article. I have printed a copy for myself, because I am very familiar with what you wrote about; and your words have a lot of meaning and sense to me. You did not mind the rattling of the politicians, the racists, the fanatics, the ignorant and the phobics. I admire and respect you. A big lot actually.

    June 9, 2012 at 4:54 am | Reply
    • TKLA

      I hope that (Prof) at the end of your name isn't implying you're a professor because your post is really bad. You imply everyone against illegal aliens is racist?

      For you and Fareed to in any way condone the illegal aliens is to spit in the face of those taking the LEGAL route. Shame on you and Fareed.

      June 9, 2012 at 10:03 am | Reply
    • billmosby

      Professor of what? English as a poorly understood second language?

      June 9, 2012 at 2:23 pm | Reply
  30. miscreantsall

    Yes, this country needs immigrants for many positive reasons.

    But, too many immigrants from one country (Mexico) is NOT good! And, Illegal immigrants from ANY country is NOT good. Immigration must be a controlled legal process AND it MUST benefit our country.

    BTW……….all legal immigrants do not have to have PHDs and special skills in order to benefit our country.

    June 9, 2012 at 4:56 am | Reply
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