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. Anthony

    I have great respect for anyone that will do what it takes, which often isn't easy, to make their American Dream come true. However, I believe that part of what makes the American Dream so meaningful for immigrants is that it has to be earned. How many things have you been handed in your life that you truly had respect and appreciation for? America appreciates and awards persistence and that entrepreneurial spirit that drives someone to jump through the hoops it takes to make it here and be successful. That drives them to open their own businesses and make their own way in this country. As the saying goes, if it were easy everyone would do it. For that reason I think it should be achievable but certainly not easy.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:34 pm | Reply
  2. Nancy Lynn

    Enough of the 3rd world immigrants!!!! Deport!!!!

    June 8, 2012 at 2:34 pm | Reply
  3. Cheryl Jefferies

    Yes. We DO need immigrants. LEGAL IMMIGRANTS WHO BECOME LEGAL CITIZENS. Not illegals who get illegal "bennies" that cost us more every single year than the entire Iraq War! LEGAL IMMIGRANTS WHO BECOME LEGAL CITIZENS.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:34 pm | Reply
  4. Frank

    Of course we need immigrants, especially ones educated in medicine and engineering. What we don't need are ones that compete for low skilled jobs with our own poor.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:34 pm | Reply
  5. Rolyat

    Abolish Social Security and watch millions flee.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:35 pm | Reply
  6. Michael

    Of course it's true that if one is born poor in Africa and they want to improve their lives they will have to work hard at it. but guess what? Even us whites in America must still work hard to get what we want and need. You make it sound like I get up at noon and look in the mirror and say "Gee I'm glad I'm a white American male! I don't have to do anything today! I think I'll go back to bed! Woohoo!!" There are people like that, and most live in the ghetto or in mom and dad's basement.....

    June 8, 2012 at 2:35 pm | Reply
  7. cinghoa

    I love the fact that immigration always gets turned into a racial issue. If a person opposes illegal immigration, they are racist and should be ashamed. On the other hand, if they are tolerant of it, they are wonderfully humanitarian. How did the word 'illegal' stop getting used to describe illegal immigration? I have worked with people from every continent, I have family from 4 continents other then North America, yet since I am a person that believes that a person from another country should have to obey the laws of our nation when they are here, I am labeled a racist by the far left nuts. I refuse to be made to feel bad due to my beliefs, and will continue to feel this way. There is a process for everyone who wishes to become a citizen, it should not be discontinued because people are threatened with the label of a racist.
    As for the ignorant argument that too many immigrants will end up on welfare, that is a gubment handout that should have been reformed decades ago, making it impossible to receive long-term and refuse to make an effort to make a change in your life, immigrant or not.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:35 pm | Reply
  8. Dave in DC

    We need more immigrants like I need a hole in my head, and I don't need a hole in my head. We need to focus on job for the citizens we already have, not some ridiculous social engineering BS that people like this writer want you to believe in. We're OUT OF MONEY. Period. Until we get our debt and spending in order it is time to shut off any new immigration.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:36 pm | Reply
    • James

      you're a fool Dave. We need immigrants to sustain this country. We also need immigrants to sustain the economy of this country. What we don;t need are people who come here and leech the system or become criminals. Luckily those folks are a minority of people coming in. Most folks who immigrate to the US contribute much much more to the betterment of this country than most native born!

      June 8, 2012 at 2:49 pm | Reply
  9. James

    Immigrants are what made the US great. Conversely the very people who made the US weak and terrible are also immigrants and their decendants.. only difference is unlike the first group of immigrants, this 2nd group of immigrants did not come here on their own free will and were captured and forcibly moved here. Many of their decendants today are running wild and rampant throughout most if not all the inner cities of America today.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:36 pm | Reply
  10. Bob

    Correction, we need the "right" immigrants, not every sob story for every hellhole in the world.

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

    Our immigration should be more like Canada. If you don't have a trade of some sort and come wanting free medical care, Canada doesn't want you. The US should be more like them. The country should slow the amount of people that come here. We can't take care of so many that are already here.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:36 pm | Reply
  12. Scott

    I have nothing against immigrants, as long as they are here legally. It's the illegal ones I have a problem with. If I commit a crime, I am held accountable for my actions and have to pay the price. Why do we let immigrants come in to our country illegally, thereby breaking the law, OUR law, and so many people think its OK?? Breaking the law is breaking the law. Illegal immigrants should be rounded up and sent back, with fingerprints and DNA on file. It doesn't matter about their "rights", they don't have any, since they aren't American citizens! Legal immigrants have all the same rights as the rest of us. Stop giving illegals government aid!

    June 8, 2012 at 2:37 pm | Reply
  13. solex

    I came to the conclusion that immigrants "Stealing our jobs" is a lot of bunk. Case in point:

    I install local and wide area computer networks. I recently installed a terminal system at a company that cleans buildings. I set up 10 terminals that automatically loaded a web page that allowed workers to easily apply for a position within the company.

    They had a job fair recently as they had procured a new contract with a local aitport and had openings for 35 janitorial jobs. They advertised the job fair in all local newspapers and media (and not just the spanish language ones) for weeks before the event. I stayed on the job site for an entire week to make sure things worked properly.

    Not one, and I mean not one white person showed up to apply for any of the jobs. Almost all applications were hispanic.

    So please spare me the "They're stealing our jobs" crap. What they are doing are jobs that we don't want to do.

    The real soluton here is to allow guest worker status. We need to to tax these people so they can pay their share for services. While they are working, they can apply for citizenship like everyone else. It is time we realize that these workers are needed.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:37 pm | Reply
  14. LIEberal Demoncrat

    Can we make trades? I'll give you 40 'hard working American Union members' for each of your refugees........

    June 8, 2012 at 2:38 pm | Reply
  15. Jack Smith

    The political hot-button issue on the national radar in recent elections has been more about illegal immigration than that of immigrants seeking citizenship into the US using established methods. How ignorant it is to say that those who oppose illegal immigration are "anti-immigrant". Also, we must remember that illegal immigration is not just an issue on the Mexican border.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:38 pm | Reply
  16. Tim

    What I find crazy is that the same people who hate immigrants, have no problem with companies (like Romney's Bain) that send American jobs to China. At least an immigrant spends money in America. The China worker that took an American job, spend zero money in America.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:38 pm | Reply
    • Athiest

      Any company that outsources needs to immediately lose any and all tax breaks. They should be investing in America's future. Then all these supposed immigrants Zakaria the sensationalism journalist talks about will have jobs.

      June 8, 2012 at 3:44 pm | Reply
  17. woody

    Today Americas cities are thriving because of immigrants and many of our families at one time were immigrants too . Most Americans today only speak English ( European Language) while other people I talk to around the world can speak multiple languages . America needs to become more diversified as we are now in a global economy and that will not change any time soon. You will also find KFC in Europe, Asia , the middle east . We are global and we might as well get use to it as you will very seldom find an American born taxi driver in D.C.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:38 pm | Reply
    • Kristina

      No one is against legal immigration. I have traveled extensively throughout Asia & Europe, and guess what, most people speak English or are in the process of learning English. I love the idea of every elementary school child learning a second language, but the reality is in Europe, most countries are the size of our states, hence the need to know more than one language.

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

      The last time I was in Turkey I had a young Turkish gentleman seranade me with an American Rap song. He used American music to teach himself English, and when I asked him why he said "English is the global language of business, if I want to get ahead in life I need to know English". He was so impressive. I do believe we would be a better country if more Americans actually visited other countries and knew how people lived. Many people would be more open minded and understanding of others, but it is illogical to not have laws regarding immigration.

      June 8, 2012 at 2:51 pm | Reply
  18. MalibuChick

    CNN loves to make everyone a victim, except you white men out there. Apparently the white straight men are all evil.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:39 pm | Reply
    • R.P.

      boo hoo, they wont let us in and give us free everything and let us sit on a free couch and drink free beer and watch free tv and not ever work ... THEY ARE RACISTS!

      June 8, 2012 at 2:41 pm | Reply
  19. aquestion

    When our U.S. grown kids cannot get a job and we already have a 1/6th of the US population who are non-citizens, why would any intelligent being invite more in? No other country does because they have a responsibility to their people, that is what it means to belong to a country which cares about it's people. It means given them the first crack at jobs, incentives, etc. Otherwise, why call oneself an American?

    June 8, 2012 at 2:39 pm | Reply
    • lionhart

      The people who have the skills should get the jobs. It should matter if they were born here or not.

      June 8, 2012 at 2:43 pm | Reply
  20. 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 2:39 pm | Reply
  21. TonyC

    America needs LEGAL immigrants.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:39 pm | Reply
  22. relmfoxdale

    I'm a first-generation American, the child of immigrants. I have no issue with immigrants.

    I just take issue with people being here illegally and with employers skirting federal employment laws by hiring them.

    However, I am not in favor of amnesty, particularly without *significant* reform. That's what we loused up last time.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:40 pm | Reply
  23. SmokeScreen

    Zakaria, you have already proven that you are the champion of illegal aliens violating our borders. This article's premise is almost comical. Of course the US needs immigrants. The country was largely built on immigration. The problem we have in this country today with immigration is the ILLEGAL type. You know that already, but feel the strange need to write an article that falsely implies that Americans detest immigration in general. Nothing could be further from the truth. It's all about ILLEGAL IMMIGRATION that must be stopped. Your failed attempt to make it seem as if Americans hate immigration altogether is ridiculous.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:40 pm | Reply
  24. big L

    let's not mix up "legal immigration and ILLLEGAL immigration" – funny how it seems CNN is playing he illegal aspect down......i don't know of anyone who is against those that follow our laws....

    CNN...why not do a follow-up story on O's uncle who hit a cop car while drunk and most importantly...being ILLEGALLY here.....why wasn't he deported?! why are we paying for imprisoning illegal immigrants such as in TN where the prison caught on fire after a riot a few weeks back...the prison was ENTIRELY for illegals! what about CA spending over $1 billion/yr on imprisoning illegals....why in in world would the tax payers be required to fund this?

    June 8, 2012 at 2:40 pm | Reply
    • Joanna

      THIS!! It makes me crazy how many people seem to lump immigrants and ILLEGAL immigrants all in one group - thus, if you're against illegal immigration, you must hate all immigrants.

      Bottom line, in any case, is that as much as we might LIKE to help everyone in the world who needs it, the way America stands today, we can't even take care of current residents, let alone take on more people.

      June 8, 2012 at 2:53 pm | Reply
      • big L

        exactly...it's the "left's" way of down playing the issue....another example..."we are a nation of immigrants"...well DUH!!! but what's the have to do with illegal immigration?! why are our laws being trampled and not upheld?!

        June 8, 2012 at 3:38 pm |
  25. Kristina

    What the person that wrote this article forgot is the glaring fact that if everyone was easily able to come here they would have no expectations of their home countries. When talking with citizens of Mexico, many of them love Mexico, but it is easier to come here than expect changes in Mexico. the only lives improved would be of those that flee their own countries, not of anyone left in those countries.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:40 pm | Reply
  26. observer1776

    The USA needs LEGAL immigrants for the skills and cultural richness that they can bring. America needs LEGAL immigrants who are willing to learn English, and learn about our government and it's history.The USA does not need illegal imigrants or those who would Balkanize the US.
    Do Liberal-Progressive columnists know the difference?

    June 8, 2012 at 2:40 pm | Reply
  27. Jeetu

    Don't tell me that the immigrants in USA get the same opportunities and benefits that a US born does. I have seen time and again that the immigrants in USA have to work at least three times harder tahn the US born just to hold on to their job without any chances of getting the true rewards of his or her work. Things are not fair and equal even in USA.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:41 pm | Reply
    • michael

      then leave.

      June 8, 2012 at 2:44 pm | Reply
    • R.P.

      Because we have let too many in already.
      Its simple economics. we don't need them right now plain and simple.
      We have outsourced labor to other countries, and then allowed people to flood in illegally to our country. We are removing work, and adding to the labor force... that is the recipe to destroy the economy.

      your taking on people you don't need adding weight to a sinking ship.
      We need to fix the ship and start building more and bigger ships, and then we will need crews to run them, then we let more imigrants in .. LEGALLY !

      You can't expect to just open the flood gates and let everyone pour in across the border and not destroy the economy and society.

      June 8, 2012 at 2:45 pm | Reply
    • R.P.

      1) Outsource jobs to other countries (reduce available jobs here)
      2) Allow illegals to flood into our country (increase the number of people who need jobs here)
      3) ? what did you guys expect ? a prosperous economy ?

      step 4) turn it into a "race" issue.


      June 8, 2012 at 2:48 pm | Reply
      • Joanna

        @ Jeetu – In my city, there are MANY immigrants, and it's true that many of them remain at very low level jobs with not much chance for advancing. But it has nothing to do with where they were born. Rather, it's largely because many of them refuse to learn English, and it severely limits their prospects. I am personally acquainted with numerous individuals – family friends – who have been in this country 20, 30, or 40 years, and cannot string say "Good morning, how are you today?" in English.

        June 8, 2012 at 2:57 pm |
  28. Mike

    I consider myself left of center, but have a slight Machiavellian streak. Immigration served this country well for a long time, allowing for an exchange of ideas and providing a unique incentive to achieve unparallelled in the history of nations. That being said, America has long exited its formative stages, and we are now at a point where the nation's resources are stretching thin, made worse by a growing political divide in which politicians would rather disagree for the sake of disagreeing than take a real interest in what's best for the country. Until the nation can get itself in order, the burden of a continuing large influx of people will only tax the system, making it more difficult to right the listing ship.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:41 pm | Reply
    • Joe

      YOU ARE ABSOLUTELY 100% RIGHT! I am a Socialist but even Socialist Europe is cracking down on immigration, due to the economic strains placed on all o

      June 8, 2012 at 2:52 pm | Reply
  29. TonyC

    Anybody who says that the protest against illegal immigration means that anyone hates all immigrants is stupid. We need a better process that human smuggling, fly by night border crossings, and political soap boxing...

    June 8, 2012 at 2:41 pm | Reply
  30. c

    No we don't need immigrants. We already have too many people.toofew jobs and other resources

    June 8, 2012 at 2:42 pm | Reply
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