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. Sean

    Wait... a self-professed proud Briton is complaining about *our* immigration policies? The US has some of the most open immigration policies of any nation on Earth, and someone with the author's credentials should know that. The position that people should be able to pick wherever they choose to live, willy nilly, is fanciful at best. Political boundaries are a reality, and they are a necessary element of the proper regulation of commerce and culture. Despite that, the US welcomes more legal immigrants than all the other nations of the Earth combined, or at least we did a few years ago. People can certainly immigrate to the US, and they do so in droves. Further, the vast majority of Americans welcome those immigrants with open arms, when they choose to follow the process and become one of us.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:42 pm | Reply
  2. c0mm3nt3r

    Thanks CNN (sarcastically), for further tearing apart America...

    June 8, 2012 at 2:42 pm | Reply
    • TonyC

      Yup. CNN is trying to become the next Pravda...

      June 8, 2012 at 2:45 pm | Reply
  3. Kristina

    If we truly want to live in a global society then all nations should work towards creating pathways of success for their citizens. We all live better when we all live better, not having any expectations for these poorer countries means that most are left behind. We don't need to turn our back, we just need to work with these countries so that they too can live better, not so that the people who most often love their home countries are forced to come to ours to do better.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:42 pm | Reply
  4. michael

    funny how liberals howl about immigration rights, but when you ask them if they are for open borders they shut up real quick. they love speaking out of both sides of their mouth. being a liberal is fine until you have to grow up and face the facts. it's imperative we maintain control over who comes into this country to protect our soveringty. nobody is stopping you freakin libs from leaving though. I'll help you pack!

    June 8, 2012 at 2:43 pm | Reply
    • asdf

      Another god muncher
      re·li·gion noun \ri-'li-j?n\
      A mass human psychosis that usually results in participants believing in incredibly silly crap and acting like total retards.

      June 8, 2012 at 2:44 pm | Reply
    • Kristina

      George Bush was the one that wanted to give amnesty. Ronald Reagan did give amnesty. John McCain was for the dream act before he was against it. Most corporations want immigrants because they want cheap labor. Instead of assuming that "libs" think or want something, maybe you should actually talk to some liberal people, it would be eyeopening as you obviously spend a lot of time being misinformed by Faux news.

      June 8, 2012 at 2:54 pm | Reply
      • Marc

        well said.

        Corporations are all for profit, well rightfully so too. Cheap labor? heck yes...

        June 8, 2012 at 4:06 pm |
      • Tracy W

        You obviously don't watch Fox News... they are also pro "legal" immigration... Not quite the evil doers you imply.

        June 8, 2012 at 4:21 pm |
  5. asdf

    We have enough... thanks anyway
    now just get the muslims to get the hell out of here and things will be good.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:43 pm | Reply
  6. ColvinHome

    We may need immigrants, but they need to be legal immigrants. If they cannot follow the laws, that makes them bad citizens. By coming here illegally, they are breaking the law and should be sent home. I don't care if they have kids born here in the US, the kids should be sent with their parents back to the country of origin.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:43 pm | Reply
  7. Lila

    Americans are pro-immigration. In a perfect world there would be a more balanced approach which would take in more immigrants from diverse countries especially in Africa. However currently we are being overwhelmed by immigrants from Mexico and Central America who are coming here illegally and believe they should come before any other group of people in the world. There should less of those immigrants allowed in and more from other areas of the world. We need that balance of talent.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:44 pm | Reply
  8. Ben

    This article neglects to differentiate between legal immigration and illegal immigration. The U.S. has long standing laws on immigration. If you feel they are unjust, then by all means make the effort to change the law to something better. Until then enforce the laws 100%. Do NOT let them forget to use the word "illegal" when talking about "illegal immigrants".

    If someone steals your car, but you don't find it for 3 years...does the law allow the thief keep that car, and register it legally? To argue an illegal should be allowed to stay in the country because you didn't find them for a few years is ludicrous.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:44 pm | Reply
  9. Athiest

    "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. "

    Very irresponsible view. The US is not responsible for the entire globe, regardless how many wars our government illegally involve us in against the will of US citizens.

    Let's say, for an example, that anyone who wanted to become a us citizen could. hundreds of Millions or even billions of people might move to our country. We don't have the infrastructure to deal with that. Our entire system would collapse.

    The answer lies in infrastructure and immigration reform. Hard working people who PAY TAXES and want to come here are fine. But lazy sponges? No thank you. Unfortunately, there does not seem to be a way to distinguish between the two, without some halfwit journalist seeking sensationalist headlines writing about discrimination.

    Let us know when you re-write the entire immigration and infrastructure reform bill so that each and every person in this country and the world will be happy. Then we can entertain your internet ravings, journalist.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:44 pm | Reply
    • Jorge Marcos Fernandes Nascimento

      O problema dos estados unidos não são seus imigrantes e sim seus cidadãos religiosos fundamentalistas.



      June 8, 2012 at 2:57 pm | Reply
  10. LglONly

    Legal Immigrants and their CHILDREN ONLY PLEASE!!!!!

    June 8, 2012 at 2:45 pm | Reply
  11. Jack

    As long as they are willing to work let them come. that's waht we're about. I do notice some groups as far as nationality seem to do better than others. Asians seem to be hard workers and contribute much to the economy. Many in some other nationalities seem to want to manipulate the system. I do feel ceratin groups should be watched such as muzlims. I can't help but not trust them because of their religions agenda.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:45 pm | Reply
  12. Proudtobe

    The notion that America was created by immigrants is proposterous and has been a sham we have told for generations. Any history buff can tell you that America was conquered by the white man arriving, killing and plundering the knowledge and land of the native Americans. If you are going to use the immigration argument then you can say the Fall of the Roman Empire was caused by immigrants or the beginning times of the United Kingdom was caused by the Saxons 'immigrating' to the islands.

    Countries are created by being conquered, built by immigrants, maintained by citizens.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:45 pm | Reply
    • Jack

      That is a good point. Countries ARE created by being conquered

      June 8, 2012 at 2:48 pm | Reply
  13. Jack

    I also would like t add they all need to come here legally.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:45 pm | Reply
  14. Bill

    Thee US needs educated, legal immigrants. The rate at which the US population is educating themselves is no where near the demand for educated workers. We don't need a bunch of uneducated illegals.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:46 pm | Reply
  15. Michael

    I'm tired of the argument that they only take jobs that Americans don't want.

    That's only partially true. The problem is when they are no longer satisfied with farm work and janitorial services. They then start to climb the ladder and take $10-20 an hour construction jobs. They take real jobs that real Americans could have to feed their families. I don't care if they pick fruit, but that should be all they are allowed to do.....

    June 8, 2012 at 2:46 pm | Reply
    • Bill

      If they are legal immigrants, they should be able to have any job that they are the most qualified for. It's up to the US citizenry to keep themselves educated. IF not, then others who have educated themselves will be in those sweet jobs.

      June 8, 2012 at 2:50 pm | Reply
  16. rad666

    I have no problem with legal immigrants. Illegal yes. What I have a problem with is the cost of supporting immigrants, even the legal immigrants that are brought in from poor countries and are given a place to live, $$, free medical care, education and the list goes on and on. At some point this breaks the bank. We cannot continue to take in poor, uneducated immigrants and support them for extended periods of time or across generations. The ratio needs to be more people working than collecting a check, I fear that this ratio is backwards, what with American workers out of work and the influx of immigrants from poor countries. And please don't tell me that they do not get these things for free. I live in taxachusetts and you would not believe what is available. Available to immigrants, but not to middle class working people like myself.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:47 pm | Reply
  17. Tom

    The argument over immigration is about ILLEGAL immigration. The author is barking up the wrong tree.

    "In 2006 the United States accepted more legal immigrants as permanent residents than all other countries in the world combined." according to Wikipedia, which sources a news article.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:47 pm | Reply
  18. Marla Armstrong

    Are we discussing legal or illegal immigrants ? (or just trying to annoy eachother)

    June 8, 2012 at 2:47 pm | Reply
  19. steve

    I am all for immigration
    new blood to help this country survive
    but let's face if they are going to continue to come here by the 1000's and we need to set them up with assistance as we do all the time and they have nothing to bring here, I say slam the door. If you can immediately be productive and provide a needed service I say let them in, if not, lock the door! those who settled this country, died and poured a lot of sweat to get where we are now and i don't believe they were on welfare!

    June 8, 2012 at 2:47 pm | Reply
  20. William Marlowe

    The author of this article clearly has very little experience in the real world and is basing his observations on simple assumptions that have repeated over and over again such as, "The rich create jobs"... Go travel some and then comeback and write a book instead of repeating just what you have 'heard'.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:48 pm | Reply
  21. Ray E. (Georgia

    I understand there are about 8 million immagrants in the pipeline now in the process to become citizens LEGALLY! My ancestors were here before the Revolution so I am basically a "Plank" Owner.

    Anyone who is here illegally is going to have a hard time making a living or any sucess. Practically no one accepts illegals. They would be better off going thru the process to become citizens.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:48 pm | Reply


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

      What are you talking about jmiranda, pimple-moley head?

      June 8, 2012 at 2:51 pm | Reply
    • Another Ryan from TX

      The same thing I'd tell anyone, Thank You.

      June 8, 2012 at 2:52 pm | Reply
    • Bill

      I don't know of any US soldier today, anywhere in the world, who is "fighting for our freedom"

      June 8, 2012 at 2:53 pm | Reply
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      No one is fighting for our freedom. The U.S is under no threat of conquest or subjugation.

      June 8, 2012 at 2:53 pm | Reply
  23. Joe

    I vehemently disagree about this. We do NOT need MORE immigrants to this country, we need LESS. This is not about being heartless, but these people will be sorely disappointed when they get here and the America they've always seen on television is nothing more than a fantasy. They will see real suffering as our country has been torn to shambles by partisan infighting, reckless war-spending and tax cuts for the super wealthy. They will only add to the unemployment line. We have millions of highly-educated Americans here who need jobs, myself included. Our young are hitting brick wall after wall and each successive graduating class is piling atop them. We need to stop ALL immigration until and when our country is sorted out. We are just adding to the problem by bringing more in.

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

      I have to disagree. Many many people I know who started companies in tech are immigrants. They are real job creators.

      June 8, 2012 at 2:55 pm | Reply
  24. Victor

    Absolutely DO NOT need more immigrants. We have more than enough leeching on the system. Does anyone seriously think that we can afford more?

    June 8, 2012 at 2:50 pm | Reply
  25. Paul R.

    Discriminate because of where they're born? LOL! ILLEGAL immigrants shouldn't be here. Doesn't matter if they're royalty. ILLEGAL IS ILLEGAL!!!!!!

    June 8, 2012 at 2:50 pm | Reply
  26. Steven B

    America needs LEGAL immigrants!

    June 8, 2012 at 2:50 pm | Reply
  27. Steve

    I worked for free legal aid for awhile. These people are an ABSOLUTE DRAIN. I'm sorry to say it but all the illegals i've run across take way more than they give back. Not only do we need to stop the influx, we need to completely revamp all of our social services and benefit systems. Including firing everyone at SSA and housing authorities and getting competent people in there. And maybe not hiring someone who can't speak english and is a complete idiot just because she fills a quota is something we should stop doing too. Ridiculous. Naivete and political correctness are drowning this nation.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:50 pm | Reply
  28. bibleverse1

    Every country needs LEGAL immigrants. Illegal immigrants from all over the world are a drain on resources. Fight for legal immigrants who want to contribute to the American Dream. PUNISH those that use illegal labor by taking their business.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:50 pm | Reply
  29. Jorge Marcos Fernandes Nascimento

    Os Estados Unidos precisam dos imigrantes para se manter como a maior potência do planeta...se todos eles resolverem sair do país de uma só vez, ai sim os USA somen do mapa.


    June 8, 2012 at 2:51 pm | Reply
  30. BabySeals

    Fantasy. I agree that an open border world with free, and honest, trade, rule of law, and fraternity are the ideal, but this is not presently possible. You may be an economist, but I am an historian and change is not this quick. Fast change is often when we see the great tragedies. Remember that the people you wish to pair are not just economic contributors with hearts of gold. People are more visceral and fatally flawed than that.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:51 pm | Reply
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