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. Artieboy

    My Sergey Brins comment disappeared. But it was simply that the US economy probably would have been OK if his family had emigrated somewhere else.

    June 9, 2012 at 8:41 pm | Reply
  2. josh rogen

    no country can withstand an uncontrolled flood of economic refuges it is a governments duty to its people to allow no more than its infrastructure can be absorbed.

    June 9, 2012 at 8:48 pm | Reply
    • Artieboy

      China's biggest worry about North/South Korea relations is a massive tide of North Korean refugees spilling across their border.

      June 9, 2012 at 9:09 pm | Reply
  3. Artieboy

    The example of the African from a remote village is ridiculous: "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." That does not explain why America needs immigrants. But it does explain why people are willing to cross deserts and oceans, and put themselves in the hands of organized criminals. But like I said it doesn't explain why America needs immigrants.

    June 9, 2012 at 9:06 pm | Reply
  4. svann

    I have nothing at all against legal immigrants, but illegal immigrants depress the labor market. You cannot have a fair market for wages when there is a pool of illegal worker that have no bargaining power. It lowers the pay scale for everyone.

    June 9, 2012 at 10:18 pm | Reply
  5. Kevin

    The root cause of many of the world's problems is overpopulation. I see no justification for increasing the USA population by accepting immigrants from outside. Also – I agree with Artieboy that the African example is ridiculous! I can see some justification for allowing a limited flow of LEGAL immigrants if they have specific high skills that are good for our economy (this is, in fact, what many other nations use as an immigration "filter"). It is STUPID to overwhelm our already struggling social services system with immigrants that will be a drain on the system. I give to my own charities – but this is not one that I think makes any sense and it is not the government's job to spend my hard-earned tax dollars subsidizing the world and inviting all the world's hardship cases to live in my backyard. Sorry – it's not right....I have compassion but this crosses a line.

    June 9, 2012 at 10:36 pm | Reply
  6. Stella

    Of course America needs and values legal immigrants. We do not need illegal immigrants. AGAIN -legal immigrants and illegal immigrants are not the same thing

    June 9, 2012 at 11:00 pm | Reply
    • Dr Veruju

      It's a shame we do not value citizens.

      June 11, 2012 at 3:05 pm | Reply
  7. AlFetah


    June 9, 2012 at 11:03 pm | Reply
  8. Michael

    You have skipped the part about why America is rich and Africa is not. We can thanks our forefathers for that. I am not sure where fairness plays into this. If I do well and leave my children riches is that not fair to my neighbor who went bankrupt and left his kids nothing? Should my wealth be re-distributed simply because it is not fair that I have succeeded and someone else has not? Fairness does not exist, and those that try to impose it are definitely not FAIR.

    June 9, 2012 at 11:48 pm | Reply
  9. TruthAndConsequence

    Of course the nation needs immigrants, but we do not need tens of millions of them. It seems incredible to believe, but during WWII, the U.S. brought the Axis on two fronts to its knees, developed the atom bomb and fed the world with half the population we have today. How much stronger are we today by our 300 millions? Will 500 millions or a billion make us stronger, happier, more united? Every nation is responsible for its own people, the U.S. has no responsibility to play nurse maid to surplus populations..but, there are categories of immigrants which are very helpful and we should exert every effort to get a necessary number of them in – but, not all of them. India is a pest hole of filth, trash and garbage. Their people have produced countless numbers of Indians who need expert medical care and yet it seems every other one of our doctors in this country is an Indian – why are they not inclined to help their own people? Or is it the money? With our 300 millions, why are our universities not pumping out American physicians at the same rate Indian universities seem to be doing? Why can't we take care of ourselves without importing tens of millions of others?

    June 10, 2012 at 12:02 am | Reply
  10. Delmar H. Knudson

    Steve Jobs' (of Apple Computer fame) father was Syrian (from Homs, I believe). We need and accept immigrants; but I am not sure why we discriminate against all the people from all the other countries but Mexico. This almost seems racist of some sort. Why do we not make the road easier for Albanians, and New Zealanders, and Moroccans, and so on; why only for Mexicans? Is this fair?

    June 10, 2012 at 12:07 am | Reply
  11. liza

    I hate the H1B visa Indians. They got fake degrees, youd think they are so smart. They play politicst to take out american citizens.

    June 10, 2012 at 1:43 am | Reply
  12. AYO

    Having had the great fortune of being born and raised in Africa–Kenya to be precise, and lived in a community which included a nanny, gardener, cook and chauffeur, and then having stepped ever so briefly into the illusion that is the country of immigrants (apart from Native Americans, everyone else is a migrant/descendant of migrants there), I understood at once what the idea of Quality of Life means, and why, poor things–you will never understand that, not amidst the noise and bombast and need to be affirmed that indeed you are the fairest of them all. Reality check–you are not. Reality check–I assure you that there are fewer people knocking at your doors trying to get in than there are those who are trying to get into other countries of the world. reality check–get real, in your parlance– you ain't all that.

    June 10, 2012 at 2:17 am | Reply
  13. R. Achel

    "How many potential Sergey Brins do Europe and post-9/11 America turn away or scare off – and at what cost?"

    Sulejman Talović was an immigrant who murdered 5 Americans in cold blood in Trolley Square in Salt Lake. How many other Sulejman Talovics have been prevented from entering the country and how many lives therefore have been saved.

    Carlos Montano, an illegal immigrant, killed a nun while drunk, and after having been caught DUI several times before. How many people are still alive in this country because other illegals have been kept out ?

    There are many, many more situations in which an immigrant killed an American than of a couple who did well. Oh, and who is to say that a better google might have been invented if Sergei was not allowed in the county

    Philippe Legrain is a an ignorant moron who should be deported

    June 10, 2012 at 2:47 am | Reply
  14. Pablo

    California needs immigrants because we don't have enough traffic.

    June 10, 2012 at 2:47 am | Reply
    • Badly-Bent


      June 11, 2012 at 3:46 pm | Reply
  15. Nunya

    Immigration is great! Glad to have em ... if they immigrate here through proper channels and do so LEGALLY. Illegal immigrants are criminals sucking the life blood from this nation; drying up its social resources, proliferating crime at obscene levels, and jeopardizing this countries stability by voting in general elections, taking jobs for less than minimum wage, not paying taxes, and having children (lots and lots of them).

    Wake up America ...

    June 10, 2012 at 3:06 am | Reply
  16. VietNam Vet

    I assume we're talking about LEGAL IMMIGRATION now right??? Our biggest immigration problem is the ILLEGAL variety.

    June 10, 2012 at 5:13 am | Reply
  17. The_Mick

    "So why is it still deemed acceptable to discriminate against people on the basis of where they happen to have been born?" In terms of discriminating against those who are not legally here: the USA is running short of natural resources like water and timber. Southern states are fighting over water supplies. We don't need MORE people.

    June 10, 2012 at 5:57 am | Reply
    • steve

      I agree with mick we dont need more people... These immigrants breed like rabbits who knows why!!! It seems to me that immigrants think imagration is a good idea of course they do!!! Stasy hime fix your own mess don't add to ours

      June 10, 2012 at 9:33 pm | Reply
  18. Ian

    Actually most immigrants understand the American system better than American citizens. They work hard and start businesses more so than sitting around receiving welfare. All of us can agree that majority of the small businesses are owned by immigrants who hire Americans. I personally have a client from Pakistan that owns 4 subway restaurants and a number of gas stations and he hires Americans. In NC almost every gas station and grocery store is owned by an immigrant with a American born citizen working in that business. I recently did some work for one of the largest manufacturers of PVC pipe in the country, the CEO is Chinese, majority of people that work in the factory here in NC is American born. This country was built by immigrants, only native Americans were in America before the creation of the USA. The USA was created by immigrants and the decendants of immigrants. All of those commenting on this blog are the decendants of immigrants except those of you who are native American.

    June 10, 2012 at 8:09 am | Reply
    • W.L. Jones

      Wrong! the Aborigine people came from East and west Africa hundred of thousand of years before any other race exit here on Earth everyboy else in this country an immigrant. Sorry to burst your bubble. Bless.

      June 10, 2012 at 4:47 pm | Reply
  19. yes to immigration, NO to muslim immigration


    June 10, 2012 at 10:18 am | Reply
  20. Millie

    America needed (or at least could contain) immigrants a century ago. That was when America was a skinny kid. Now America is fat, sloppy, indolent, and getting poorer by the minute. Immigrants do not help; they only place more stress on the bloated body. The only kind of immigrants needed are, MAYBE, the highly skilled, who actually do contribute to our society. Immigrants who go out into the streets and demand their "rights" should have the right to go back home. Most of us would glady contribute for their one-way ticket.

    June 10, 2012 at 10:59 am | Reply
  21. CharlieSeattle

    The Democrats always spend more than the taxes they increase when they are in power.

    The Republicans always cuts taxes less than what they spend when they are in power.

    ....................................So what is the difference here? None.

    Congress has a spending problem not a revenue problem. Ops, I take the second part back. Tax revenues would be higher if NAFTA and China's MFN trade status were never passed by Congress. That was about 8 million lost jobs ago.


    Both political parties have lied to the voters for 40 years and committed willfull ecomomic treason against the taxpayers that sent them in good faith to Washinton to build a better America not destroy it.

    ....................................Fight Organized Crime! Re-elect No One!

    June 10, 2012 at 11:16 am | Reply
  22. CharlieSeattle


    "...More than half of the television ads produced by the National Republican Congressional Committee in the last election have focused on jobs."


    Did Americans vote the same Republican party back in power, backed by businesses that employ millions of illegal aliens nationwide during this ongoing recession? Yes they did.

    Did Americans vote the same Republican party back in power that made expenses tied to out sourcing American jobs tax deductable for major American Corporations? Yes they did.

    Did Americans vote the same Republican party back in power that WILL NOT repeal NAFTA or China's Most Favored Nation trade status that cost America 8 million jobs? Yes they did.

    Did Americans vote the same Republican party back in power that caused the deregulation that lead us to the financial crisis? Yes they did.

    Did Americans vote the same Republican party back in power that caused the deregulation that lead us to the Bank fraud prolonging the home mortgage crisis? Yes they did.

    Did Americans vote the same Republican party back in power that WILL NOT consider repealing H1B Wavier exemptions that allow over 65,000 foreign tech workers into the US to take even more American jobs? Yes they did.

    Why did you all do that?

    ...Bad things are supposed to happen to stupid people.

    June 10, 2012 at 11:17 am | Reply
  23. Truth_ROCKS

    America needs immigrants so that the national IQ stays above average!

    June 10, 2012 at 11:18 am | Reply
  24. Dan

    The U.S. became powerful through the immigration of people that sought a better life and wanted to be part of American capitalism and a democratic republic. The people that emigrated to the U.S. in the 1800's and early 1900's came to a country with little to no social programs, so only risk takers and people that thought they could make through their labor and skills made the long ocean voyages from Europe and Asia. There are still many immigrants that still fit this description, but they're generally the legal immigrants who have spent weeks filling out the paperwork required to come here and have something to offer to the U.S. On the hand, the illegal immigrants that committed $4 billion of tax fraud should be kicked out of the country immediately. This article also seems to suggest that we should have more of the later which will weaken the country further. Though, this is to be expected from globalists who want to destroy the U.S. and especially the middle class.

    June 10, 2012 at 11:46 am | Reply
  25. Wastrel

    You cannot write an intelligent article about immigration without using the word "illegal". This is more stupidity from CNN and their amnesty crew.

    June 10, 2012 at 11:55 am | Reply
  26. Bull

    All is BS; month ago Family, legal immigrants, with children flew back to Britain, because no jobs, money, food and place ti live in CALIFORNIA. Same time, illegals get help from government. This CNN topic is another attack on Whites using "diverse" or "colorful" flood in white domains.

    June 10, 2012 at 12:12 pm | Reply
    • Mark

      Exactly, i think that it is an attack on our country and white ethnicty. The dark skinned peoples are rapacious invaders and need to be sent back to whence they came, and stop acting like we owe them something. They have their own countries, their own homelands, they need to fix their own countries issues and stop thinking like they have a right to flood other countries. I say, we need to stop all immigration into the US, now.

      June 11, 2012 at 4:42 pm | Reply
  27. 9001

    why america needs immigrants: expansion. not a hard answer.

    June 10, 2012 at 12:34 pm | Reply
    • Bill in Cincinnati


      why america needs immigrants: expansion. not a hard answer.

      Expansion? to where? mexsicko?

      June 10, 2012 at 1:47 pm | Reply
  28. Bill in Cincinnati

    The NUMBER ONE political issue to tackle, which incidentally will solve five major national financial problems at once, is ILLEGAL IMMIGRATION. The best way to CREATE JOBS is to deport all illegal immigrants NOW. First that will create thousands and thousands of seriously needed immigration and border patrol agent jobs right off the bat. Second, as the illegal immigrants are removed and deported the jobs they leave will be available for TRUE AMERICANS. Third, by having TRUE AMERICANS employed then the TAXES WILL BE PAID to the government (instead of the employers of illegal immigrants keeping that money to avoid being detected for employing illegal immigrants). Fourth, by deporting illegal immigrants we SAVE OVER A TRILLION DOLLARS A YEAR as a nation since hard working TRUE AMERICANS currently pay taxes to support THE HEALTH, EDUCATION AND WELFARE BEING USED BY THE ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS WHO WILL NO LONGER BE HERE. (NOT COINCIDENTALLY THIS IS ALMOST EXACTLY EQUAL TO OUR ANNUAL NATIONAL BUDGET DEFICIET) Fifth, we won't be spending real taxpayer dollars on health (including anchor babies) education and welfare on multiple fraudulent/fake identifications for each of these individuals. And finally, as a BIG BONUS it will prove to America and the rest of the world that we are serious about getting our country back on our feet which is the biggest inducement (GLOBAL CONSUMER CONFIDENCE) that will be immediately affected. America and the world need to witness this confidence. Finally, we will show everyone we are serious about protecting our country and our borders from terrorists.

    June 10, 2012 at 1:45 pm | Reply
    • Mark

      I agree 100%. Wht really irks me is that these immigrants think we owe them sometihing. The fact is, the condition of their own countries is their own responsibility. If they want a nice country, they should work to fix that, not basically invade other countries. Immigration is nothing less than an invasion of people who are too lazy to fix their own countries problems. When they come to other countries, it actually damages the country they left as they are needed there to help fix their own countries problems. This is called the brain drain. Most of these countries do not accept immigrants, the US has no responsibility to accept immigrants and I believe the time has come to stop immigration into the country.

      June 11, 2012 at 4:36 pm | Reply
  29. justiceLeague

    My Story
    I am an immigrant from India, came to America after doing my Masters in computers chasing “the American dream”. I was 24 when I landed, I am 32 now.
    I have always been working on high paying Jobs were most of my year’s w2’s grossing around 90K .I was always employed, even during the ‘08 financial bust .I really worked hard during that period just to keep my job and not giving anyone a reason to fire me just because I was a “Foreigner”.
    After 8-9 Years in this country, living legally, nothing has changed for me yet. I am still the foreigner on a Visa with a Green Card nowhere in sight. The part that hurts most is that my employer is still finding it hard to get a PERM application approved by the department of labor. (A PERM is the first step to GC, to prove that the job I do does not significantly affect the US Job market or an American worker). It could take me 4-5 years after the PERM is approved to get a Green card just because of my country of Origin is India. I will be 37-38 when I do get a Green card (which will allow me to work in this country “legally” without restrictions).
    14-15 years just to become a permanent resident? Can you imagine what I should be going thru .I cannot make any financial decisions, I will usually have to work on jobs that others have left incomplete, no career progression, cannot be out of job even for one day, if I lose my job I will have to return to my country the same day. (I have reached a point where I cannot work anywhere other than in America), cannot travel to my country because there is a possibility that my Visa may be rejected at a consulate. But one that hurts the most is constantly is living under fear that I may have to leave this county if I don’t have my papers approved. Living under this fear constantly for a long period of time changes your character a lot.
    But this is just my story. There are people who were lucky, made use of the system or even got married to American citizens and became residents. But there will be plenty who agree with my story too. I still believe that working hard on your job, being patient and letting the system take course is the best approach.
    Most people reading/commenting this article may not understand the trauma that immigrants go thru. Its only law abiding immigrants like me who will understand this.
    People born in this country don’t realize that McDonald is not present in every part of the world. It’s only some immigrants like me who understand that you have to wake up at 5 in the morning to fetch water for day to day chores or there will be no water for the rest of the day.

    June 10, 2012 at 2:15 pm | Reply
    • Mark

      I would suggest you go back to India and do something to the conditions for your fellow Indians. That is the solution to your countries issues. If your country needs work, fix it, its your fault. Stop acting like we owe you something. Go back to India where you belong.

      June 11, 2012 at 4:29 pm | Reply
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