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. deniz boro

    I only wanted to say "thanks" for taking head. Re-registry to enter your page was not necessary. Nice article defining the new-age serfs.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:09 pm | Reply
  2. Doug

    I think the point is that few are against Legal Immigration....

    But in the progressive mind I guess this point gets missed. Having Illegals in the country means no one knows they are here and amongst other things they can then be easily exploited...

    And the progressives like Illegals because then they have more that are dependent upon their grace's and to make the ponzi scheme of Social Security going – someone to work to pay for the retired and needy and we are not producing enough "others" to pay for this mess..... And ya-ya they still cant vote – right.....



    June 8, 2012 at 2:09 pm | Reply
  3. JOE B

    I am of hispanic descent and like most hispanics have nothing against immigrants but what I do oppose is illegal immigrants being allowed into this country. The real problem is that media groups like CNN have an agenda that runs insync with our government and opposes the will of the people. Illegal immigrants are burying this country in debt. There is a process on hosw to become a legal citizen and that is what they are to follow but for some insane reason CNN thinks it is ok to break the law and for them to come to this country illegally. I would like to see new legislation put in place that puts all the cost of the illegalscoming into this country on corporations that support illegal immigrants. If CNN, FOX, NBC, CBS and other big corporations support illegals then they have to financially support their education, healthcare etc. not the common tax-payer who is currently footing the bill and wants them out of this country. CNN if you want them in this country then you pay for them, otherwise I have to say shut your mouth!

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

      Unfortunately, our own government is suing those states that are trying to fix the problem. What is going on is shocking, and CNN has perpetuated it with stories like this and others from Navarrette, Jr.

      June 8, 2012 at 2:12 pm | Reply
    • American

      You are so ignorant, it's stunning.

      June 8, 2012 at 2:20 pm | Reply
  4. V.P.

    That first paragraph turned me off. They make it sound like discrimination doesn't live here (America) anymore, I've got news for you it does! I deal with it everyday, and until I can feel truly free in the country where I was born and served 20 years in the Navy for, I really can't feel for anyone else.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:09 pm | Reply
  5. spent

    Now, are you something, or what? Living in Europe I was in an American Embassy on business. A large section of the area is filled with chairs for people waiting to get visa's and do you know, people are not desperate to come to America, at least at the time I was there. Many people of whom I have met like where they are, living in Europe. By the way, I am a citizen of USA.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:10 pm | Reply
  6. American

    NO WAY..... I am terrified of non-Americans. How can we let different people into this country.... they are different and scary and I may find out that they have differing viewpoints or customs. This would be ANARCHY

    June 8, 2012 at 2:10 pm | Reply
  7. Jess

    People are not put into two groups: immigrants and people who hate immigrants. There's also a difference between legal and illegal immigrants; the stereotype of immigrants "taking jobs" mostly just refers to those people who frown upon illegal immigrants. So yeah, there is a strong disconnect between one million immigrants naturalized each year who contribute to society (which most people don't have a problem with) and over 11.2 million illegal immigrants living in America in 2010 according to a New York Times article. The article should have distinguished this difference.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:10 pm | Reply
  8. Ricke1949

    How do other countries function without immigration? China is doing great. Australia and NZ ain't that bad off with very minimal immigration. Get real How dumb can you get.

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

      Australia has a lot of immigrants and it is very wasy to get visa and even citizenship if youare skilled professional, unlike the US where from the start you get a message "we are incompetent and we don't want you" by the way things are handled.

      June 8, 2012 at 3:13 pm | Reply

    We do indeed need immigrants.

    THE LEGAL KIND!!!!!!!

    June 8, 2012 at 2:11 pm | Reply
  10. Erich

    Give me your tired, your poor, your "IN AMERICA WE SPEAK ENGLISH"!!

    June 8, 2012 at 2:11 pm | Reply
  11. Tracy W

    No one is against immigrants. It's the illegal immigrants coming here and sucking up our resources and abusing the system. If someone comes here, they should assimilate and become an "American" Not an Asian American, not a Hispanic American, not an Irish America... If you cannot see the difference between the them, then you are a moron.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:12 pm | Reply
  12. Ricke1949

    When we had controlled immigration we had none of our current problems. Something you really think about.
    We are importing people who do not believe in democracy and are lowering education standards.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:12 pm | Reply
  13. Jack

    We have enough ! No more !

    June 8, 2012 at 2:12 pm | Reply
  14. Marty

    Americans, for the most part, don't care where you came from......we have a problem if you came here illegally. Follow the laws, welcome to America. Break the laws, go back where you came from!

    June 8, 2012 at 2:13 pm | Reply
  15. chumlee

    We do not need more welfare immigrants/refugees coming into the US on the backs of hard working
    US taxpayers.

    Perhaps there are immigrants with skills who want to come to the US and work. HOWEVER, until we have full employment here with our citizens, we need to close the door to immigrants/refugees.
    The refugee issue is huge, and if everyone would pay attention to the huge number of refugees US taxpayers are supporting from Burma, there would be a revolt. Yes! These people are here and getting everything they need without one hour of employment.

    Our economy is in the toilet, and we cannot afford any more welfare handouts to immigrants/refugees.

    Let's pay attention to reality, and stop the bleeding-heart crap

    June 8, 2012 at 2:13 pm | Reply
    • Chicagoan

      Well said Chumlee. I agree 100% !!!

      June 8, 2012 at 2:48 pm | Reply
  16. Beavis

    I'm pretty sure hardly anyone opposes LEGAL immigration. KEYWORD BEING "LEGAL".

    June 8, 2012 at 2:13 pm | Reply
  17. jduperre

    I can see it now, affirmitive action for whites by the time i'm 30. fml

    June 8, 2012 at 2:13 pm | Reply
  18. Kyzma

    Strange points. What is the focus here? Do we need immigration to make our country and our nation better or just because we want to make someone's life in other coutries better by sharing (giving them) our wealth? We certainly need immigrants, but only those who want to be Americans instead of those who want to come here because they want to enjoy higher life standards and at the same time want to remain Africans,Indians, Chinees, etc.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:13 pm | Reply
    • LucyRicardo

      That's my thinking exactly.

      June 8, 2012 at 2:34 pm | Reply
  19. Bill

    Why doesn't this guy, who lives in Europe, talk about how Europe needs to allow more immigration?

    June 8, 2012 at 2:13 pm | Reply
  20. WWRRD

    We don't discriminate on the basis of where people are born. We discriminate based on whether they are "bringing something to the table". I want educated people with initiative and skills. We seem to get a over abundance of poor illiterate people with very few skills. Secondly, we give preference to those that follow our immigration laws, and we ruthlessly deport people and their families that violate our territory by coming illegally.

    That way our laws allow the best and brightest to come here and contribute , and thiose that would otherwise just be a strain on public services could stay where they are.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:14 pm | Reply
  21. scranton

    Illegal immigrants by the millions pouring over our south border gave immigrants a bad name.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:14 pm | Reply
  22. aki

    funny the FREE LOADERS OF THIS COUNTRY AR NOTE IMMIGRANTS THE PEOPLE BORN in America are the once abusing the System.

    Illegal Aliens cannot have welfare checks if they are illegal only legal or citizen of American can get those FREE BEES.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:14 pm | Reply
    • Bill

      Thirteen years after Congress overhauled the American welfare system, 57 percent of immigrants with children — those in the country legally or not — use at least one government, welfare program according to a report released Tuesday by the Center for Immigration Studies.

      June 8, 2012 at 2:19 pm | Reply
  23. kngdavid

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

    This is insulting to all the intelligent people in this world. Living in the US is not a basic right of life; it's a privilege. Anybody with half a brain can see this fallacious reasoning

    June 8, 2012 at 2:15 pm | Reply
  24. jobdespair

    While I am fine with a certain amount of immigration, I don't believe in the conflation of terms. Legal immigration and illegal immigration should be discussed as two separate items. I don't believe that making illegal immigrants legal is just because their whole existence in this country started with an illegal act and I believe they should have to go home and follow the same path the legal immigrants followed.

    The U.S. can benefit greatly by *legal* immigration, but having said that the U.S. has an H1B visa program that is full of unfairness and fraud. H1B is supposed to be for skills that are in short supply, but it is regularly used for I.T. personnel, office staff, and a whole list of skills that are clearly in short supply. The U.S. is the only country in the world that doesn't make sure that citizens aren't favored in the employment process and there is nothing wrong with doing that. Even China makes sure that is own citizens have the advantage. Only in the U.S, where we are only a half step from corporate rule, is it the other way around.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:15 pm | Reply
  25. larry

    We should not be allowing any Mislooms into the USA for Obvious hate beliefs that they follow.
    They should be quarantined in there own chithole country to rot and fester until there cult is gone.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:16 pm | Reply
  26. Shane

    Do we need Immigrants? Yes. Should we require them to speak english so they can communicate with most of the population already living here? Damn straight.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:16 pm | Reply
  27. Laurie

    We don' have enough? There are currently 30 million illegal immigrants in the US.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:17 pm | Reply
    • Laurie


      June 8, 2012 at 2:17 pm | Reply
    • TDD

      According to this author, we need to let the entire population of Africa in to make things just and equal. So it's going to be more like 1 billion.

      June 8, 2012 at 2:27 pm | Reply
  28. Please NO!

    Enough already. Read my lips NO NEW IMMIGRANTS!!!

    June 8, 2012 at 2:17 pm | Reply
  29. El Flaco

    I think that all immigration should be ended. We have too many people and not enough of anything else. I don't care if the would-be immigrant is a poor farmer or a Nobel Prize Laureate. I don't care what his or her race or religion is. All the seats in America are taken.

    If we need farmers, we can teach farming to Americans. If we need physicists, we can teach physics to Americans.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:18 pm | Reply
    • LucyRicardo

      Solex, I understand what you are getting at but you are confining your comments so as to mean Latinos and immigration. There are so many other nations involved here that cause bigger issues. I think the commentator was referring to the nursing, medical and technical jobs that pay well and are being taken by immigrants when we should be giving preference to our own citizens, born here, who are unemployed. Train them to do this work and we'll save a lot of money in more ways than one. Many are just beginning to wake up and realize we can't keep giving it all away. We need to take care of our own first.

      June 8, 2012 at 2:49 pm | Reply
    • LucyRicardo

      And well put, El Flaco.

      June 8, 2012 at 2:50 pm | Reply
  30. Roland

    There is on flaw in the author's argument ... "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". Someone escaping a horrible living situation with nothing but the shirt on their back is not necessarily enterprising. They could just be desperate. Once they are here, if you really think they would choose work over welfare please explain why so many people already here choose welfare over work. I'll make the author a deal. I will support more open immigration BUT ONLY if this country first enacts welfare reform that requires people to work for that welfare money and provides a huge incentive to get off of welfare.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:18 pm | Reply
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