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. the_dude

    So sorry we are broke. The USA can't afford anymore welfare cases we already have a permanent lower class to waste our resources on....namely blacks and mexicans. You"' have to go back to wherever you came from and try to fix the problems there instead of freeloading from America.

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

      If you had any sense of intelligence which I'm sure you don't, you would know that the majority of people receiving welfare are white. http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1077/is_n2_v48/ai_12970819/

      June 8, 2012 at 2:25 pm | Reply
      • steve

        illegal immigrants?
        go away you bafoon

        June 8, 2012 at 2:51 pm |
  2. noteabags

    "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."

    So stop outsourcing IT jobs to India!! There are plenty of highly educated Americans who lose their jobs in IT because it is cheaper to outsource to Bangalore.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:19 pm | Reply
    • JaySF

      Yes: Stop outsourcing jobs to India, especially when we're allowing Indians to take over the IT industry here in the U.S.! There's no diversity when more than half of the people working in an IT shop or anywhere else are Indian.

      June 9, 2012 at 12:54 pm | Reply
  3. Johnny Vegas

    Wow so many negative comments from ignorant people. My mother arrived in this country legally for a better opportunity. As a U.S. born citizen, I served my country in the military and I've been volunteering my time in my community for troubled youth. I buried my mother 3 years ago and she did more for this country then most of you people posting negative remarks. My mother served 22 years as a medical doctor in the U.S. Army and retired as a Lt. Colonel. She then practiced medicine privately after retirement providing some services for free to those who were unable pay.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:19 pm | Reply
  4. snowdogg

    Why is the topic immigrants and not ILLEGAL immigrants?

    June 8, 2012 at 2:19 pm | Reply
  5. Matt

    We wouldn't even be having this discussion if not for abortion. Eighty years ago the US government projected population growth to be much higher than it is now, but tens of millions of abortions over the last 40 years have hurt the growth and the taxes received from that growth.

    The correct solution is less abortions.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:20 pm | Reply
    • Surfer George

      That would be silly if it wasn't so sadly off point.

      June 8, 2012 at 2:35 pm | Reply
    • ES

      Matt, after you birth and raise 3-4 kids on yor own, we'll talk.

      June 8, 2012 at 3:17 pm | Reply
  6. Bribarian

    CNN's ratings have hit a 20 year low, and it's because of articles like this

    June 8, 2012 at 2:20 pm | Reply
    • Jeff


      June 8, 2012 at 3:28 pm | Reply
  7. Mark Couvillion

    Bull! Saying that Americans are too dumb or too lazy is a hard sell with me. We can not even take care of all the people that are here now. More will certainly be a drag. Immigration levels should be based upon sustainability more than altrustic notions and false economies.

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

    I'm as liberal as they come, wouldn't vote for Romney if you paid me, and I think that immigration in this country is just to much.

    We have of the worst unemployment crises in recent memory (thanks to greed mainly), we have more people in this country than every before, why in the world are we letting more in? I'm not saying don't EVER let them in, I'm saying could we get our own house in order first?

    June 8, 2012 at 2:21 pm | Reply
  9. R.P.

    Nice article.
    Nice if your a liberal trying to twist the issue of free handouts into a racecard type situation.

    No one cares where you were born only if you are takeing thier hard earned money as handouts from the govt.

    The govt = taxpayer money, I dont liek working to support other people.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:21 pm | Reply
  10. hatcam

    Nobody is against LEGAL Immigration. We're against ILLEGAL immigration. Write the article on the effects that ILLEGAL immigration is having on LEGAL immigration and now you've got yourself a story!

    June 8, 2012 at 2:21 pm | Reply
  11. Bill

    A new study has found that a remarkable 70% of illegal aliens in Texas are on the dole. Since only 39% of native born Americans are on welfare, it makes one think that the phrase “doing the jobs Americans won’t do” should be changed to “not doing the jobs that Americans won’t do.”

    The Houston Chronicle tells the terrible tale of Texas taxes:

    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.

    In comparison, 39 percent of native-born Americans with children are signed up for welfare, the report found.

    In Texas, 54 percent of legal immigrants and 70 percent of illegal immigrants receive welfare assistance, with illegal immigrants generally receiving benefits on behalf of their U.S.-born children, according to the study, written by a think tank that favors reducing immigration into the U.S.

    Overall, Texas tied with California and New York for the second highest immigrant welfare rates behind Arizona.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:21 pm | Reply
  12. hatcam

    Nobody is against LEGAL Immigration. We're against ILLEGAL immigration. Write the article on the effects ILLEGAL immigration is having on LEGAL immigration and now you've got yourself a story!

    June 8, 2012 at 2:22 pm | Reply
    • Rick

      Agree 100%.

      June 8, 2012 at 2:24 pm | Reply
    • raul rainer

      US needs to fix legal immigration system before they fix illegal immigration system. Today if someone from India or China with a Bachelors DEgree in Engineering etc and 2/3 years of work ex applies for green card; they will have to wait for 50 years or more to get green card.
      What kind of a system is that??? When was the last time you saw Indians and Chinese with Indian and Chinese flags on the streets protesting against this rotten system...reason they are too busy in their jobs and belive in the american dream..

      June 8, 2012 at 4:52 pm | Reply
  13. ceallach


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

    lol the propagandist who wrote this lives in England, are you kidding me?

    June 8, 2012 at 2:22 pm | Reply
  15. Charles

    "Who would have guessed that the son of a Kenyan goatherd would end up as U.S. president?"

    Could there be a better example of why we need to limit immigration?

    June 8, 2012 at 2:23 pm | Reply
  16. EasyRhino

    Is the author saying that all cultures are equal?

    Fact is multiculturalism, and the doctrine of “victimology,” to explain the lack of success of our underclass is destroying the USA.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:23 pm | Reply
    • Thoms Biggs

      Exactly. This article appears to be another effort to dived and conquer, destroy the middle class and create slaves.

      June 8, 2012 at 2:50 pm | Reply
  17. Mrs. Katz

    Thank heavens for immigrants! My Burmese, Miss U, is tapping out a lovely Couperin pièce de clavecin right now, Les Barricades Mystérieuses. So elegant.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:23 pm | Reply
  18. Angel Johnson

    We need Legal Immigrants who will respect America. We do not need immigrants who want a free ride or want to make this country just like the one they left and they should learn english. They should pay taxes on every thing they make in this country and immigranta should NOT be able to qualify for benifits that a Citizan cannot get in this country.

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

    Who is saying we do not.? No one is against immigrants that I am aware of only illegal Aliens. If they get here Legally then GOD bless them and welcome to America. We do need all of you that want to come. But do not break the law to do it. That is just plain wrong. PERIOD. The USA should make it much easier. It is very hard to come here.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:23 pm | Reply
  20. Johnny America

    Looking at the photo used, I cannot see anyone who will be valuable for us. We need to have more stringent guidelines

    June 8, 2012 at 2:24 pm | Reply
  21. NorCalMojo

    Immigration policy is an economic policy to facilitate growth in boom times. It should be throttled or increased with economic conditions. Continuing our 1990's immigration policies has resulted in wage stagnation and is one of the main factors in the widening income gap.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:24 pm | Reply
    • xponential

      Lily white leftists with their jiggly thighs are fine with immigration as long as it's not in their neighborhood.

      June 8, 2012 at 2:33 pm | Reply
  22. Mary

    The author unknowingly makes a great point. America needs to welcome more people like Sergey Brin's parents, given the fact that his father teaches physics at University of Maryland and his mother works for NASA. The chances of him failing were very, very low! But that doesn't mean we welcome anyone and everyone! Look at what is happening in the Latino community. Most of these people came here as poor low skilled workers and majority of their children drop out of school, get pregnant, join gangs or just get welfare! Yes, America needs immigrants but as the author said, someone like Sergey Brin's parents not someone who cleans toilets!

    June 8, 2012 at 2:24 pm | Reply
  23. Alex

    I'm a naturalized citizen, brought here legally when I when I was in my teens (from Europe). I believe there should be a time limit on holding a green card. If the person decides not to become a citizen after 5-7 years, they should lose their green card and required to go back home. Avoiding paying taxes is not a legitimate reason. Immigration should be based on filling jobs in the fields that America lacks, like doctors, scientists, farmers not people with fake diplomas from India, willing to work in IT field for less money. If you are not willing to swear an oath to this country and become a citizen, you should be required to go back. Immigrants need to love and accept this country as their own, not take economic advantage. I did, and my parents did!

    June 8, 2012 at 2:24 pm | Reply
    • raul rainer

      "Fake Indian IT workers willing to work for less"??? What does that mean??...legal immigrants on H1b have to be paid salary decided by the Labor Certificate (given by Dept of Labor)..no company can pay them wages below amount in labor certficate...This is United States where you have to work in order to survive, unlike Socialist European countries where you have a job without working.....

      June 8, 2012 at 5:03 pm | Reply
  24. Mrs. Katz

    And my two Siamese are brilliantly schooled in the Martial Arts.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:24 pm | Reply
  25. chet

    Why don't you look at what has happened in France, Denmark, Sweden and England then tell me why happens~! Open immigration does not work – selective immigration where we can have productive citizens does.
    We had a quota system that worked for a while then the southern border cracked open and we were flooded with illegal immigrants and our greedy system used them for their bodies.
    Where people are from and their skin color should have nothing to do with anything but would you want Hamas or Iran to flood this country? I think not!

    June 8, 2012 at 2:25 pm | Reply
  26. Frustrated

    We are a country that is made of immigrants, yes. Legal immigrants are fine as long as they're productive and there are jobs for them to get or create themselves(without handouts from the government!). When I hear there are 12 million illegal immigrants in this country, I want to vomit! If people actually believe that, they're stupid. Wait 20 years from now and see what we have. I don't want to hear any wining from you liberal idiots then.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:25 pm | Reply
    • Patrick

      There is a simple way we could almost completely eliminate illegal immigration. That would be to legalize migration. We could, of course, track who comes in and out to keep our criminals and terrorists, and we could restrict government benefits to people newly in the country, but other than those qualifications - keeping out criminals and restricting benefits - there is no good reason to make a person wait 10-15 years to come to the United States to work.

      June 8, 2012 at 2:28 pm | Reply
      • Kana

        The US granted amnesty back during the Reagen years as a measure to stem illegal immigration. How'd that work out? We have more illegal aliens now than we ever have. Amnesty is not the answer. Illegal aliens should be fined and deported and not help in our jails. Those illegal aliens that have committed jail-able offenses should server their time and their home country should be billed or have their financial aide reduce by the cost of incarcerating their citizens. Upon release they should be immediately deported.

        June 8, 2012 at 2:37 pm |
      • Patrick

        The reason that amnesty doesn't reduce illegal immigration is because the problem is the immigration law itself - that a person may have to wait more than a decade to immigrate due to quotas on how many people in a particular year can come here to work. The reason why people immigrate illegally is because there is no real alternative - if a person has to wait a decade, that's pretty much the same as saying that they can't immigrate at all. Change that law - allow people to come here to work with only a minimal delay to ensure they are not a criminal or terrorist - and then you will reduce illegal immigration to near zero.

        June 8, 2012 at 2:51 pm |
    • Chicagoan

      Well said Frustrated. I agree totally!

      June 8, 2012 at 3:15 pm | Reply
  27. tss

    There's a BIG difference between LEGAL and ILLEGAL immigrants.
    I like illegal immigrants better ... they work for less wages.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:26 pm | Reply
    • Tom

      And they cost more in the long run using free healthcare, education, welfare etc.

      June 8, 2012 at 2:28 pm | Reply
    • Marc

      If someone breaks the law, how is that person better? it is too early for Friday happy hour... Hick

      June 8, 2012 at 3:58 pm | Reply
  28. Dan G.

    Once again CNN and it's Open Border contributors fail to acknowledge the difference between legal and illegal. We don't need any additional uneducated/socially dependent immigrants (legal or illigal).

    June 8, 2012 at 2:27 pm | Reply
  29. WOW

    Yet another liberal CNN 'Headline Story'. We love the world and welcome LEGAL immigrants. When we try to protect the poor of other countries we are called 'war mongers'. Can we make up our minds please.......

    June 8, 2012 at 2:27 pm | Reply
    • Matt

      you complain alot, why not go somewhere else for your news?

      June 8, 2012 at 2:28 pm | Reply
    • xponential

      ChoOmbama News Network.

      June 8, 2012 at 2:35 pm | Reply
  30. Matt

    What is will all these stupid Opinion articles that lump groups of people all into one?

    June 8, 2012 at 2:27 pm | Reply
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