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. Mrs. Katz

    My Israeli Shorthair is an accomplished chef. Oy! His Sephardic bent on Jewish cuisine is a delight.

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

    I believe we need SOME immigration but, ALL should be here legally. We, like most other nations, deserve to know who you are and, what you actually have to contribute to our society. We need no more leaches.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:27 pm | Reply
  3. Mike

    Legal immigrants are welcome those who break our laws to come or stay here are not simple as that. Though we have reached a point where we can no longer accept as many legal immigrants as we once did.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:27 pm | Reply
  4. BEM684

    "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"

    In many countries, if you don't work, you starve to death. In the US, if you don't work, you get food stamps, medicaid, and section 8 housing, and all you need to do is be here legally – you dont have to be a citizen. Sounds like a great motivator to move.

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

      This is simply not true.

      June 9, 2012 at 5:01 pm | Reply
  5. David M

    As long as there is a difference in any two people, there will be judgements made. Not born where I was? Then you're not as good as I am. Not my color? Not my (fill in the blank) and that means I'm better than you, if you're in my territory. But if I'm in your territory, then you will be of the opinion that you are better than I am. It's humanity. That's how it works. Next??

    June 8, 2012 at 2:28 pm | Reply
  6. Peter the Great

    Yep, America needs immigrants, legal immigrants.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:28 pm | Reply
  7. Chuck

    America needs immigration, yes... legal immigration.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:28 pm | Reply
  8. iHateStupid

    Legal immigrants? Sure.

    Illegal immigrants? Heck no.

    The liberal hacks of the world are trying to pull the wool over everyones eyes by using "immigrants" as an umbrella term to try to usher everyone into the country. It's lunacy.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:28 pm | Reply
  9. treyuga

    America needs jobs for its own citizens first. When unemployment is half of what it is now, then let's start talking about "needing immigrants" again.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:28 pm | Reply
  10. Blame Bush

    Immigrants are much more desirable than the idiotic red neck yahoos running around our nation.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:29 pm | Reply
    • xponential

      Your pasty thighs and moles are ugly, too.

      June 8, 2012 at 2:36 pm | Reply
  11. Jean

    LEGAL immigrants are still welcome in the US but NOT ILLEGAL aliens (they are not immigrants). Controlled immigration allows people to come to US ifm they can be productive workers and become Amercans. We need this, but we also need to keepm them off the welfare rolls.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:29 pm | Reply
  12. Kana

    "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." Philippe Legrain, as a Briton that's a rather arrogant statement. What are Great Britains policies on accepting immigrants. Can just anyone enter the country and demand a job as you suggest the US should do.

    The US has Immigration laws, just because you as a foreigner don't approve of our laws that's to bad. Every country has their own Immigration laws. If you want to immigrate than follow the laws. Why should we just open the door and just let anyone in. The US as well asn any other country needs to take care of their LEGAL citizens first.

    I agree our Immigration policies may need to updating but it should not be at the expense our our own citizens. If you want to come to the US than do so legally, if not than accept the consequences of not following our laws.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:29 pm | Reply
  13. chuck

    please stop confusing the immigration reform needs with what is being done to stop illegal immigration. there are thousands of people from all over the world waiting to become citizens. jumping the border or falsifying papers to get in doesn't earn you a free pass. to me it doesn't look very good if the first thing you do when entering my country is break one of our laws. its just disrespectful. if you don't like the way the immigration process done become a citizen and move to reform the policy or law. id expect any other country to require the same. this isnt a racism or discrimination issue no matter how loud people scream foul. this is an issue about accountability. just because stats show that hispanics are the one of the higher offenders of illegal immigration does show profiling. it shows the obvious fact that we share borders, making it very simple to become fed up with waiting and walk or jump over. everyone else has to get on a boat or plane. stop defending the offenders, tell them to be patient, wait their turn, and let those already here legitimately work toward a more streamlined system.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:29 pm | Reply
  14. SK81

    I'm sorry, but there are so many problems in the U.S. right now, I really could care less about immigrant woes. When my family came here they changed our last name, there was not government assistance, they were forced to learn English, they got jobs, were glad to be here and proud to be American. Now immigrants just come over here and complain about what we aren't giving them. If the U.S. is so awful, just leave.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:30 pm | Reply
  15. Satalink

    America needs to close it's doors to immigrants while we recover. Simply put, they either take from our jobs or our welfare. To be honest, America could fix it's unemployment problem in 90 days if it would revoke all foreign work visas. Cruel or American?

    June 8, 2012 at 2:30 pm | Reply
  16. Pete

    Immigrants from Europe and eastern Asia yes, otherwise no.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:30 pm | Reply
  17. Norm

    Who deems it acceptable to discriminate against people not born here?
    Uneducated southern racist Conservatards.............

    June 8, 2012 at 2:30 pm | Reply
    • David M

      You sound like a uneducated northern racist liberal.

      I have lived in the north and the south. Believe me, the north is not immune to racism and bigotry. It's as rampant here as anywhere else in the country.

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

      Cut that mole off your ugly face.

      June 8, 2012 at 2:37 pm | Reply
  18. jak jak

    Why do these liberal idiots look at illegals immigrants as immigrants? THEY should be shipped out. Legal immigration is good thing. Illegal immigrants is not... duh!!!!

    June 8, 2012 at 2:30 pm | Reply
    • xponential

      I think we should build free housing up North for all illegal immigrants in Boston, Ma. They need to racially mix with Mexicans and stop being so hoity-toity white.

      June 8, 2012 at 2:38 pm | Reply
  19. hatcam

    It's really astonishing that this friggin' Philippe even has a job. Who is paying for this guys opinion? Un-friggin-believeable...the more you read this article the more you scratch your head and say to yourself...is Philippe flippin' for real? Someone pays this guy for his opinion. Get anyone...an immigrant even...legal or illegal...to replace to this guy.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:30 pm | Reply
  20. Chris

    One of the all-time dumbest articles I have ever read.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:30 pm | Reply
  21. Marc L from NY

    This guy is right. Now, let's all hold hands and sing Kumbaya. Maybe if we wish really, really hard we could have heaven on earth.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:30 pm | Reply
  22. Great Nation

    What if we gave IQ tests and physicals to get in? WE ARE SPARTA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    June 8, 2012 at 2:31 pm | Reply
    • Dan

      They already do...with an exception of the IQ. You need to go through the physical check up, disease testing, xrays, vaccines, blood work, etc. That's what I had to do to get my green card from Europe.

      June 8, 2012 at 3:49 pm | Reply
      • Marc

        Wait till you apply for citizenship, you desire for more testing will end there. There is a verbal and written test

        June 8, 2012 at 4:02 pm |
      • Dan


        Already took the test and passed. Ironically the person asking me questions spoke hardly understandable English.

        June 8, 2012 at 10:34 pm |
  23. Mosin Nagant

    America might need immigrants but it does not need illegal aliens. If you want to follow the law and become a legal US citizen I have no problem with that. People that come here with no desire to assimilate into our society but instead leach off of hard working Americans and not pay any taxes are in my opinion not welcome here.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:31 pm | Reply
  24. Surfer George


    Rather than compete in the Global marketplace, colleges keep raising tuition, Government keeps cutting support for low income students and Corporations hire aliens (immigrants) woh have the skills that we need to be successful here.

    So, we "need" immigrants to do jobs that we COULD train Americans to do. I grant you, Americans will form unions, expect decent wages, pay raises, benefits, the works, but then AMERICANS WOULD HAVE JOBS and money to spend HERE, not to send home to the family overseas.

    Certainly, there are good reasons to bring in the truly best and brightest from around the world, but there are MILLIONS OF AMERICANS ready, willing (EAGER), and able to do the vast majority of the jobs that need filling.
    In the bargain, this would be truly Patriotic.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:31 pm | Reply
  25. DoNotWorry

    Corporations need immigrants to keep wages down and to keep from supporting education in the United States. Corporate-owned media always supports corporate interests. Corporate-owned Congress ditto.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:31 pm | Reply
  26. Canuck

    My yes comes with but one caveat: Live by the laws of the land that graciously allows you in, don't try to impose your own set of rules and beliefs..we wouldn't be allowed to do that in your country

    June 8, 2012 at 2:31 pm | Reply
  27. zacoben

    Sir....immigration is AWESOME!!! Our country was...and is....founded on it. The issue is NOT immigration. It is illegal immigration. Just out of curiosity.....how did Sergey Brin's parents arrive in this country? Did they sneak in? Or...did they come in legally? I do not know. I'm asking. And....to take it to the next level. How many potential Sergey Brin's have been aborted? I'm just wondering.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:32 pm | Reply
    • c0mm3nt3r

      bravo, zacoben

      June 8, 2012 at 2:34 pm | Reply
  28. c0mm3nt3r

    We are all coming to your house to indefinately stay, eat your food, use your money, use your stuff, enjoy you facilities and services, etc. All of us, because, why should we be discriminated against for not having what you have?

    June 8, 2012 at 2:32 pm | Reply
  29. SeeBee

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

    And, ... This is a good thing?

    June 8, 2012 at 2:33 pm | Reply
    • Tim

      It's a great thing. I hate to educate you, but unless you are a Native American, your ancestors are 100% from another country. If you are white (which I am), your entire family comes from immigrants. You my friend are a product of immigrants.

      June 8, 2012 at 2:47 pm | Reply
    • MySay500

      Surely you never even graduated from high school. Didn't the trailer park have a school for you to attend where you could have learned how to spell correctly.

      June 8, 2012 at 8:15 pm | Reply
  30. Everett Wallace

    Well so that there is no confusion, you either an American or not we have no immigrants in the United States and if you are black and from africa you are known as black americans. IMMIgration! HOLYSPIRIT!

    June 8, 2012 at 2:33 pm | Reply
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