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. texaslady2

    With 23 million Americans either unemployed or underemployed, we just do not need immigrants now. We especially do not need the uneducated, barely literate peasants from Latin America who can't or won't speak English and have hordes of children for the poor US taxpayer to support, feed, educate and medicate. If we accept any immigrants at all, they should be educated, intelligent, speak English fluently, be able to support themselves, and not have so many children. We don't need to turn our country into an overpopulated Third World country just to make these unnecessary people feel "at home". Let's put a moratorium on immigration until all Americans are rehired, and then cut the level down by at least half. And throw out ALL illegal aliens and their expensive families.

    June 9, 2012 at 5:14 am | Reply
  2. warsteiner

    Successful well educated people dont move unless their countries are in ruin or they cant get work in their fields. So we are left with poor uneducated people who think that everything is free in the States. In Puerto Rico and Mexico there are big signs at the major airports that tell immigrants the best cities to go to based on the welfare system. So tell me again why we need people who come based on a welfare system

    June 9, 2012 at 6:04 am | Reply
  3. Polar Bear

    We need legal ones. Legal, not those miscreant law breakers flooding this country.

    June 9, 2012 at 7:16 am | Reply
  4. TKLA

    We HAVE immigration. Many LEGAL immigrants come each year.

    June 9, 2012 at 10:00 am | Reply
  5. Charlton Heston

    Catchy headline, but no useful information in this short article. The only reason it's here is to show ads to us, so that CNN can make money on them.

    June 9, 2012 at 11:13 am | Reply
  6. Gerry Hintlian

    Why do we need them? The answer is we DO NOT!!!

    June 9, 2012 at 11:17 am | Reply
  7. MikeV

    ACtually, Obama's illegal immigrant relatives were on welfare, it was in the news

    June 9, 2012 at 11:57 am | Reply
  8. JeffinIL

    There are very few arguing against immigration. Illegal immigration is the problem. Those who are against illegal immigration are immediately labeled as racist. Apparently, there are those who feel that the rest of the world should be able to simply walk in at will.

    June 9, 2012 at 12:03 pm | Reply
  9. JaySF

    The problem here boils down to the quality of the immigrant (for want of a better phrase) and the number of immigrants allowed into the U.S. The government owes it to the country's future to be selective about who is and isn't allowed in. As for the hard-working, educated entrepreneur from Africa, sure, let that person in, as long as he understands and is willing to contribute to the American system. But does that mean he should be able to bring along his mama, daddy, brothers, sisters, and eight children, who perhaps are uneducated and don't care about making that same kind of contribution? It does not, and the U.S government needs to draw the line there. It is wise for the government to invest in educated, motivated people, but please, do we really need to tap into other countries for more security guards and maids? There are plenty of people here already who can take those jobs, especially in the age of eight-percent unemployment.

    And people should be able to communicate in comprehensible English before they are allowed to come here and work. Take it from someone who has worked among many immigrants in Silicon Valley for thirty years: productivity is diminished when people can't communicate effectively - and "tolerance" and other forms of political correctness don't make up for that.

    And when it comes to the number of immigrants allowed in, we need to realize that not just some, but almost all of the entrepreneurs from Africa and dozens of other places want to come here. Do we want to see entire American towns transformed into little Mumbais as is now the case in Great Britain? How much diversity is there in a town or a Silicon Valley IT shop that is three-fourths Indian? There's no balance, and diversity is threatened, when the immigration floodgates are opened too wide. Let's face it: How many people who are already here want to move to Africa or India, and how many of the people there want to come here?

    We cannot and should not let everyone come here who wants to - pure and simple. I agree with Fareed Zakaria that America has thrived in part because it has kept itself open to the world. But being open-minded and leaving the immigration doors wide open really are two different things.

    June 9, 2012 at 12:24 pm | Reply
  10. Schmand

    The world is over populated. America is over populated. The nation is full, get out.
    There are no more wide open spaces, it's all subdivisions now. America already has more people then it can use.

    June 9, 2012 at 12:51 pm | Reply
  11. nolazy

    Conservatives and liberals are ocean apart. Libs want an open border, cons want a controlled immigration. We should split the country in two. One w no sovereignty(open border), and one for the conservatives who won't allow illegal immigration but law abiding and legal immigrants are very much welcome. I wonder what country would go bankrupt first. California anyone?

    June 9, 2012 at 1:03 pm | Reply
  12. Bill

    I do agree that America needs immigrants, we just don't need millions per year.

    June 9, 2012 at 1:20 pm | Reply
  13. OH MAN


    June 9, 2012 at 1:29 pm | Reply
  14. pana

    Such hate for Obama displayed here. This piece Fareed wrote was about Immigrants; the haters turned it into an Obama bashing. Obama is a natural born US citizen, get over it.
    By the way, does anyone want to comment about John McCain's birthplace....the Canal zone in Panama.

    June 9, 2012 at 1:32 pm | Reply
    • JaySF

      Right on, pana!

      June 9, 2012 at 1:39 pm | Reply
  15. Bob

    So, if a person isn't a hard working entrepreneur they must be a lazy dimwit? Who decides that, or who is what? The business community or pro business groups? Entrepreneurs and business people are only part of the equation of life. Not every body is business oriented or wants to be, and quite a lot of people who want to think they are, aren't..There are more hard working every day people that are responsible for humankind functioning than there are entrepreneurs or business people. Business only survives with customers and workers, and workers are customers, that's why getting rid of U.S. workers and cutting the wages of U.S. workers is nothing but a quick profit boost to individual companies at the expense of destroying our consumer base and tax base, essentially our economy and country. No matter how good of an idea a person has, it only comes to fruition and remains successful if there are customers for it, and workers to build it, or make it work. Life is short and should be somewhat enjoyable but unfortunately the rat racers have turned everything into business, business, business, money, money, money. There is an endless supply of so called successful people who in their later years regret spending their whole lives digging, clawing, and scratching to get to some dream goal, all the while neglecting everyone and everything that should have mattered to them.

    "Why America needs immigrants".

    With over three hundred million people of all nationalities and ethnicities, with backgrounds of all imaginable types, with millions of people, even college educated, unemployed or under employed, the question is, Why does anyone think America, the U.S.A., need more immigrants? Short and sweet, most realistic people don't, it's the greed driven business types who are looking for ways to get cheap labor here without having to travel outside of our borders, as if they haven't done enough damage already. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and quite a lot of the big companies and corporations are pushing as hard as they can to eliminate visiting worker quotas and regulations, they want to open the flood gates, and seeing how our government is truly controlled by the big money holders, it's just a matter of time. Especially considering how so many every day people are stupid enough to worship them and think they can do no wrong. And just think, if they can get rid of some more U.S. born workers they can boost their stock values and if you're in the market you too can make money destroying the country along with them.

    U.S.A., U.S.A., U.S.A., what a joke, patriotism doesn't exist one bit, if it did, as a country we would be training and teaching people, as well as making sure they were employed, instead of rewarding companies for getting rid of them.

    June 9, 2012 at 2:00 pm | Reply
    • billmosby

      You're so right about clawing your way to the top and regretting it later. Steve Jobs only relented and let his biography be written so his kids would understand why they had to do without him so much of the time. That's what he said in the book, and it's pretty telling that he didn't even have time to tell them about it in person, isn't it.

      June 9, 2012 at 2:21 pm | Reply
    • KM

      Well Bob, I for one have nothing against those individuals who have worked hard, saved their money, and perhaps had a little luck along the way. I say more power to them. I also say that the world is not geared toward equality. Everybody is different. In the US we are all blessed with the right to pursue our dreams and aspirations. Some will achieve more than others. Those that have acheved more are under no obligation to help others. If a person who is wealthy chooses to help others, that is their right. It is also their right to do nothing. In the final analysis, eveyone within reason has an opportunity to be successful to some degree. If one has bad luck or makes poor choices, what fault is that of the wealthy? So too in business. You don't honestly believe that the standard of living achieved in the US was thusly achieved through demonizing businesses? I'm not naive enough to believe that businesses/corporations deserve to be worshipped, they do not, by the same token, deserve to be reviled as well. There are good corporate practices and bad. Grouping them all into one collective for the sake of criticism is both unfair and short-sighted. What really needs to happen is for the federal government to step in and take the matter of illegal immigration seriously. Especially when it deals with hiring illegal workers for the sake of paying lower wages. Such a problem does have a solution. It just requires people to have the courage to take measures that will actually fix the problem. Instead of just providing lip service.

      June 9, 2012 at 7:40 pm | Reply
  16. billmosby

    Well, now you've done it. To quote from your article: "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 have always enjoyed the more inclusive, enlightened parts of your GPS program, in which you gather a good selection of knowledgeable people and let them help us understand what is going on.

    But that one quote has destroyed you in my eyes. You're nothing but a xenophobic jingoist after all, and one displaced from your true home, at that.

    Thanks for helping to free up an hour per week from my busy schedule.

    June 9, 2012 at 2:17 pm | Reply
  17. Bob

    What we DON'T need is an out-of-touch, ivory tower know-it-all lecturing to the American people about what is best for their country. Just how many immigrants per yer do these fanatatics want? We currently let in one million plus legally on an annual basis, and of course turn a blind eye to many more illegals. Is that not enough? Seems to me we are overpopulated and unemployed enough. It's funny that a so-called economist like Phillipe doesn't seem to grasp the laws of supply and demand in regards to labor markets. In his eyes the average immigrant, unlike the "dimi wit" American, has the magical ability to create jobs as opposed to merely compete for them. That's quite a concept, just add say 2 million foreigners and we should create say 8 mllion or 10 million jobs? Only in the bizarro world does this make sesne. Then again, maybe he does understand the realities, and maybe he's quite ok with having pervasive low wages and a massive oversupply of labor. Maybe he favors a demographic shift for political and social aims. Either way I don't care, the open borders people like him are absolutley stark raving mad and are destroying this country right before our very eyes!

    June 9, 2012 at 3:31 pm | Reply
  18. MJSouth

    As a non hispanic immigrant how about some opportunity for other ethnic groups that don't just come over the border and then scream for a path for citizenship???

    June 9, 2012 at 4:06 pm | Reply
  19. Because America's economy is a pyramid!!!

    America's economy is a pyramid if people stop joining in , it stop growing. It is simple is that and if you don't see the obvious is because your heads are between sands!

    June 9, 2012 at 4:48 pm | Reply
  20. Ron Edde

    Life isn't fair, and some people need to get over it. Liberals will never be able to level the playing field by trying to force those who are privileged, either by birthright or their own ingenuity, pay for upgrading the lives of everyone else. It is terribly unfortunate for people to be born into poverty and areas where they may never fulfill their potential, but does that somehow obligate us in the US to degrade our own lives so we can all be more equal? THIS IS NOT AN EGALITARIAN WORLD, AND IT NEVER WILL BE. Some people are born stupid. some are born ugly, etc. Is that fair? No, but it doesn't mean I'm going to start forking over my own money for special ed classes and plastic surgery so those people can move to Hollywood.

    June 9, 2012 at 5:33 pm | Reply
  21. Bob

    With regard to the "pyramid" comment, I assume you would be discussing the social security system. Actually, it can stay solvent for at least the next 50 years, the problem is the government raids it for war mongering and other purposes. So no, technically we don't need more immigrants to pay into it. Secondly, immigrants use more in government services than they pay for, since they have larger families (education, health care etc.) and they make lower wages on average, thus pay lower taxes. So every extra immigrant, on average, represents a net loss to the system. So this is another example where immigrants are a net detriment for the US.

    June 9, 2012 at 5:41 pm | Reply
  22. Bob

    With regard to the "growth" contribution of immigration...Well it is likely that increased immigration leads to increased economic growth, since immigrants consume goods, and require the building of more housing and infrastructure. However, if they're competing for jobs, how does increased growth benefit the average citizen? Why is "growth" such a great thing for the average citizen? It means increased pollution, congestion, etc. etc. Whoopeee, that's just great.

    June 9, 2012 at 5:45 pm | Reply
  23. PJ

    We should go back to the way it was in the 50s and 60s. Nobody gets in without a sponsor who can financially support them. Also, they should be able to pass an English test. As for Asian immigrants. Who knows a Choo from a Whoo. They can claim anyone as a relative. This has to be tightened up. President Romney will do it.

    June 9, 2012 at 6:00 pm | Reply
  24. Kristina

    WHERE THE HELL IS THE I FREAKING LOVE THIS ARTICLE BUTTON??? you hit it RIGHT ON! thanks for this article.. people need to wipe the ignorance out of their eyes and understand that our nation was built because of immigrants.. if not for immigrants most of us would not even exist here. We would be living in a whole other country! God bless ya!

    June 9, 2012 at 7:08 pm | Reply
    • TruthAndConsequence

      Kristina – you need to understand that Colonial English, Scots, Welsh and certain Germans, settled in America not as immigrants, but as subjects of the Crown coming to lands claimed in the name of the British monarch and recognized according to prevailing international law. They took no oath of loyalty to the King, since they were already subjects of the King. For them, moving from London to New York would be like you moving from Omaha to Los Angeles. As the British in North America took over certain lands, people like the Dutch, Swedes, French and Spanish were grandfathered in as colonial subjects. Others allowed in – were immigrants. They required an oath of loyalty to the King. After the American Revolution, all of these, except certain loyalists, were grandfathered in as citizens of the U.S., but others who came later were immigrants and had to make an oath of loyalty to the American Government. That is how it works. Until 1965, our immigrants were primarily Europeans with similar, if not exactly the same, values. After 1965, Congress changed us to a wider mix of peoples with no to little shared history. On top of that, tens of millions of these people had no respect for our laws and came anyway. This has created a huge immigration and illegal immigration issue in this nation – a mess of a liberal Congress' making which had no forethought of where their "generous" impulses would take this country in less than fifty years. It is now time to seriously review the Immigration Act of 1965 and examine whether it is serving the U.S. or serving other nations and peoples.

      June 10, 2012 at 12:22 am | Reply
  25. KM

    People conveniently forget, in their rush to judgement about those who opposed illegal immigration, that we do have immigration law and policies in effect. The majority of people who I have had conversations with don't mind immigration, they just oppose those who defy our laws. Add in an administration that has done everything within it's power to avoid having to properly enforce said laws and you end up with the reason for many folk's angst. Immigrating to the US is not illegal. Failing to follow the established laws and policies is.

    June 9, 2012 at 7:15 pm | Reply
  26. ted

    I am a former immigrant with a PhD in Science and Engineering who paid my share of taxes and collected zero welfare for me or my family. What I don't want to see are the uneducated, "how can I milk America" illegals here.

    June 9, 2012 at 7:44 pm | Reply
    • KM

      You're not alone. I see no benefit to allowing such individuals into the US. One should not have delusions that all illegals are in the US legitimately to pursue gainful employment and pay their fair share. There are quite a few, and I've seen my fair share as well, that are merely in the US to bilk the system out of whatever social welfare benefits that they can get their hads on. Let me qualify that with I mean no disrespect to those who do things the right way...ie: they seek legal residency or citizenship and pursue gainful employment. Obeying the law is not that hard to do, all one has to do is be willing to do so.

      June 9, 2012 at 7:50 pm | Reply
  27. viknat

    If they are here legally no problem, otherwise they are only slave labor to the liberals and a burden to the US taxpayers. We are not the world’s provider for education, welfare, employment, or medical benefits. , Illegals fight for your benefits in your own country

    June 9, 2012 at 7:48 pm | Reply
  28. Artieboy

    >> 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.

    Would that same hard working entrepreneur have more opportunities than the lazy dimwit born next door to him?

    June 9, 2012 at 7:56 pm | Reply
  29. Artieboy

    >> So why is it still deemed acceptable to discriminate against people on the basis of where they happen to have been born?

    Send that note to football club Las Chivas Rayadas del Guadalajara. They not only do they do that but they proudly boast about their discriminatory policy.

    June 9, 2012 at 8:03 pm | Reply
  30. Artieboy

    >> Immigrants: Your Country Needs Them

    This is the name of the opinion piece, but Mr. Legrain gives only one reason why "your country" needs them: [immigrants] "don't just take jobs, they also create them, when they spend their wages as well as in complementary lines of work."

    Is that it? Is that the only viable reason for immigration? Immigrants help create jobs. Sounds like immigrants are just #s for the economic engine as were the serfs in feudal times. There has to be something more.

    June 9, 2012 at 8:22 pm | Reply
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