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 (1,225 Responses)
  1. Satalink

    We're moving toward locking our boarders like the rest of the world. First things first: illegals. Next comes locking down the legal immigration process. Give it 20 years. Change of this magnitude takes time to prevent and minimize out-cry from the affected.

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

    No We D Not need immigrants. This entire conversation is silly. We have everything we need right here! Everyone coming here legal or illegal never does things by the law.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:52 pm | Reply
  3. Kevin

    My wife is not from this country.

    While you ignorant brainwashed bigots troll message boards spreading your hate, my immigrant wife has done more to help/serve this nation than any of you sorry pieces of garbage will ever do.

    Keep talking, and Ill keep having mixed babies that grow up with a healthy view of other cultures and a respect for their fellow man, while you spread your hateful propaganda and provide absolutely nothing of value to your local communities or this country as a whole.. I would gladly replace the 50 million of you idiots out there with 50 million hard working immigrants any day of the week.

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

      I wholeheartedly agree. You keep making those babies Kevin!

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

      Is you wife now a citizen, is she here legally? That is the true point. It is not hate. It is the expectation of being treated equally. If I as a citizen break the law, I get arrested. If she is here illegally, then she needs to be arrested.

      June 8, 2012 at 3:04 pm | Reply
      • Kevin

        While of course I agree that people should ALL come here legally, if you cannot see that a lot of the things others are expressing on these message boards are rooted in racism an fear than you are blind.

        June 8, 2012 at 3:21 pm |
    • Todd

      Allowing a group of people to break the law is not required for cultural diversity or awareness.

      June 8, 2012 at 3:06 pm | Reply
  4. tom

    send them all back we don't need them, our resources are not available any longer, and of course they would not be required to learn english....!!!!

    June 8, 2012 at 2:52 pm | Reply
  5. KWS

    Of course we need immigrants. People who don't crash the line, respect our laws, and show respect to all others who want the same thing are likely to make great American citizens. Line crashing, embezzling criminals who sneak in to grab some money and send "home", wrapping themselves in other flags and blocking our streets in protest when we try to do something about it are not needed.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:52 pm | Reply
  6. John Moore

    Nations that open their borders without any controls would be swamped and their economies shattered, we see enough signs of that in various locations around the world already. This opinion on immigration is like saying that communism creates a Utopia for all to live well in, excuse me if I laugh. In principle some concepts appear wonderful but in reality cannot work, we humans are not content to share everything equally with others. Immigration with sensible controls also helps to minimize the social unrest that is seen when any mass migration occurs. If underdeveloped countries lose their brightest and most ambitious people how will they ever improve? Shouldn't the objective be to improve poorer nations rather than strip away anything of value they have?

    June 8, 2012 at 2:53 pm | Reply
  7. IamJesus

    Not sure why the negative sentiment of immigrants.... unless you are native american, then you are either an immigrant or the descendant of an immigrant. Also this great nation was build by immigrants. Largely even now that trend still continues. Steve Jobs for example was kids of Armenian immigrants. The country will always need immigrants because they and immediate offspring spur innovation.

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

      "Native Americans" were immigrants as well, just a little before the rest.

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

      This argument of 'you were an immigrant too' Lamest argument there is. My ancestors came here legally. Became a citizen legally. Became an American legally.

      June 8, 2012 at 3:01 pm | Reply
  8. AS

    If legraine's opinion were any dumber, I'd cry. America is the birth right of Americans, not the birth right of the rest of the world. Do I feel fortunate? You bet. Do I wish I possessed the financial wealth of Barack Obama for example? You bet. That doesn't mean I have a right to his wealth, nor does it mean he has an obligation to share it with me. Grow up Legume or whatever your name is. This is AMERICA, not Kindergarten.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:53 pm | Reply
  9. chedar

    I would rather import these hard working americans who contribute to our society, I would say deport those lazy americans that are american citizens back to their roots. They don't contribute anything other than headache. Think of this. My hepatologist told me that she has a problem with her visas. Imagine, a practicing specialist in the liver and we can't let her stay here. What a stupid government. Only Obama makes sense. The idiot republican never make sense,.All they do is to rant who the Tea Party

    June 8, 2012 at 2:53 pm | Reply
  10. Brad

    .....says a guy named Philippe.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:53 pm | Reply
  11. Guitar

    Unless a person happens to be a Native American Indian – we are all Immigrants or children of immigrants!!

    June 8, 2012 at 2:54 pm | Reply
  12. cliff

    once immigrants are taxed like an 18year old just out of high school once they become a citizen i'll be ok with it. BUT there is no way they deserve a 7 years tax break. A vast majority of wealthy immigrants come to america open a business and turn it over to new incoming family to continue a tax free loop hole and that must end. if they were DEDICATED AMERICANS they wouldn't take advantage of that rule.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:54 pm | Reply
  13. CNNuthin

    The big issue I have noticed is that you can divide immigrants further into groups. There are Legal and Illegal. A Legal Immigrant has gone through the system, is on record, pays taxes, ect. An Illegal immigrant has not gone through the system, some (yes some and not all) have not received the proper identification and paperwork to apply for standard pay jobs and work under the table (no W-2. No Tax forms). Most people see this as unfair because if you follow legal means, you have to pay the government to live and work here. If you go through illegal means, you are exempt from taxes on earning. Perhaps I am over simplifying this and the process to legally come here is near impossible...but people do it. Rules are followed. Hard Work Punished. This is not how we were all brought up, I'd like to think.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:54 pm | Reply
  14. Deport Pedro

    It isn't immigrants that people have a problem with. It's ILLEGAL immigrants that people take issue with. Big difference between the two.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:54 pm | Reply
  15. chedar

    I would rather import these hard work ingimmnigrants who contribute to our society, I would say deport those lazy americans that are american citizens back to their roots. They don't contribute anything other than headache. Think of this. My hepatologist told me that she has a problem with her visas. Imagine, a practicing specialist in the liver and we can't let her stay here. What a stupid government. Only Obama makes sense. The idiot republican never make sense,.All they do is to rant who the Tea Party

    June 8, 2012 at 2:54 pm | Reply
  16. dohhh...

    the main problem is that Americas are lazy, they feel threatened by the Mexican and other such immigrants because such immigrants normally tend to work a lot harder for lot less money and with no drama, Americans also feel threatened by educated immigrants from China/Korea/India because they don't want to bust their a** in school to be able to compete ...
    So basically now its just a country of fat ..lazy..stu**d..hypocrites..

    June 8, 2012 at 2:56 pm | Reply
    • Violet Weed

      Dear dohhh... it does seem like yOU are an illegal alien. Americans are the HARDEST WORKING PEOPLE in the world. I have managed well over 1600 offshore workers in the past 25 years and I always have to inculcate them into the fear of VIOLET in order to get them to work with a sense of urgency and simultaneously TRAIN them so they tend to be know-nothings, aside from being lazy. I NEVER have to crack the whip (verbally) over my AMERICAN workers.

      June 8, 2012 at 3:00 pm | Reply
    • Bill

      You need to re-phrase your comments. I'm not fat (160lbs), or lazy (I work about 55 hrs/week) or dumb (I hold a MS in electrical Engineering), and everyone that lives around me is quite similar. You are stereotyping US citizens as badly as many are stereotyping immigrants.

      June 8, 2012 at 3:01 pm | Reply
  17. SaveRMiddle

    I'm not surprised the article leaves out the main reason for years of intentional systematic incoming immigration-specifically Hispanic due to their large families......a very much needed workforce to pay for our 78 million retiring Boomers.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:56 pm | Reply
    • Violet Weed

      You are mistaken. I'm one of those 'baby boomers' and I am NEVER going to retire... not from lack of money, but because I had the God-given opportunity to retire at 50 for seven months which opened my eyes to the stupidity of 'retirement'... one can only travel, play, socialize so much before it is obvious that life is for those with a raison d'etre driving them... one needs hard work to live well... certainly I do! Am I 'taking a job' from a 'recent college graduate'?? ha hah hah hah hah... can an immigrant do my job? ha ha ha ha again.

      June 8, 2012 at 3:03 pm | Reply
  18. 2418t

    Immigration has been our strength, it creates diversity and diverse systems are stronger and more sustainable. We wouldn't be the country we are today without the contributions of millions of immigrants and we should never stop embracing immigrants who want to come here and continue to improve our country.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:57 pm | Reply
    • Shane

      Once again – you fail to recognize that the United States allows millions of immigrants to arrive and become citizens legally.

      June 8, 2012 at 3:01 pm | Reply
  19. Hypocrisy Hunter

    To dim-witted Will, who spreads BS with no supporting evidence whatsoever, and then criticizes those who call him on it: Help the economy – buy a clue.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:57 pm | Reply
  20. Lisa

    Immigrants are not the problem... the problem is ILLEGAL immigrants.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:57 pm | Reply
  21. Shane

    There seems to be a lack of ability to discern between an immigrant and an illegal alien. The majority of Americans can be pro immigration but still fight against illegal immigrants. Why does this get grouped all together – oh yea – they are potential voters for Obama.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:58 pm | Reply
  22. JayJ7

    "So why is it still deemed acceptable to discriminate against people on the basis of where they happen to have been born?" Because the places they are born have become hellholes due to the culture of the people who live there., and when the people immigrate they seem to be intent on keeping their poisonous culture. I see Asian and Indian people studying hard and getting ahead and I think "this is good for America" I see Mexicans dropping out having tons of babies and joining gangs, and excuse me for thinking "this is bad for America" We stereotype peoples cultures, usually with very good accuracy, and come to logical conclusions while knowing there are always exceptions.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:58 pm | Reply
  23. Dennis

    More liberal BS from biased CNN. Zakaria is a one trick pony.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:58 pm | Reply
  24. Kajal

    Of course, America needs immigrants.
    Every person here, except the Native Americans, is an immigrant too: whether first, second, third generation.

    The issue is with ILLEGAL immgration, not with immigration. I am not in favor of ever rewarding illegal immigrants: why should someone who came into the country without earning the right to do so legally be entertained and asked to stay?

    June 8, 2012 at 2:59 pm | Reply
  25. rand

    MOST people DON"T discriminate against people based on where they were born......................this is yet ANOTHER CNN article that tries to stir up controversy where it DOESN"T EXIST!

    June 8, 2012 at 2:59 pm | Reply
  26. budd

    Why is it that all you whining liberals cannot understand the issue. It is not and never has been legal immigration. It is ILLEGAL immigration. As a country we have the right to control our borders and the people who come to this country. Please check in some other places like Sweden. You would expect a very far left country to welcome all with open arms. Not so. They closely restrict immigration as do most other countries around the world. And go try to sneak into Mexico. You will never be heard from again if you are caught by the Mexican authorities.
    This is about not taking on other countries most uneducated, poor, people. If the people from these other countries would make half the effort to improve their homeland that they do to sneak into the US we would all be better off.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:59 pm | Reply
    • JayJ7

      I know your Fox news addicted mind cannot understand much, but liberals are not for illegal immigration, go make up some other bogeymen to hate.

      June 8, 2012 at 3:04 pm | Reply
  27. Mark

    Yes, we do need immigrants. Engineers, Physicists, MD's, Mathematicians and other specialists. Let these folks in. We do not have the support capacity to bring in more tired, , poor, and huddled masses. Maybe we should point that out on the Statue of Liberty.

    June 8, 2012 at 2:59 pm | Reply
  28. Bye Obama

    We don't need anymore immigrants. Look at the immigrant in the white house and the on purpose destruction he has caused

    June 8, 2012 at 3:00 pm | Reply
    • Tr1Xen

      You sound ridiculous. Obama is not an immigrant, although I strongly agree with you that he needs to go.

      June 8, 2012 at 3:02 pm | Reply
      • PaulC

        And replace him with Romney? Be careful of what you wish for.

        June 8, 2012 at 3:36 pm |
    • Ed

      I voted for the man the first time. Everyone does something very dumb in their lives, my opinion now is to replace him with anyone.

      June 8, 2012 at 3:47 pm | Reply
  29. alf

    Where does it end?? Americans and LEGAL immigrants with green cards cannot find employment and yet you bleeding heart LIBERALS want to let more ILLEGAL ALIENS stay here and feed, clothe and educate them.
    Have you completely lost your minds? Put your money out instead of mine...I need mine for my family

    June 8, 2012 at 3:00 pm | Reply
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