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. Tr1Xen

    America welcomes immigrants with open arms, provided they come here legally, obey our laws, and at least make an effort to learn the language so the rest of us don't have to bend over backwards to communicate with them. Is that really too much to ask?

    June 8, 2012 at 3:01 pm | Reply
  2. Frank Greco

    Why does the US Need ImmIgrats – Let's answer it this way; For those who believe that, let the immigrants move into their houses and have them support the immigrants while the immigrants get welfare and free medical! Then let's see if your house can hold together; it will overflow as is the US, and they will go broke as the US; while the Immigrats profit!

    June 8, 2012 at 3:02 pm | Reply
  3. Mike

    Let's Get Real!
    The true story is not discrimination on birthplace, but rather, why do people discriminate against others based on skin color, idioms, and facial features? Saying discrimination is based on birthplace is inaccurate, and allows a loophole for people to get away with being veiled racists, that's the truth. People say they discriminate because one is born in Mexico, we all know that is a big lie, and the truth is that those very people discriminate against Mexicans based on skin color, idiom, and facial features, that is the REAL TRUTH.

    June 8, 2012 at 3:02 pm | Reply
  4. Burbank

    Hype and Propaganda! Don't listen to this load of bunk! Immigration policies have everything to do with NEEDED SKILLS! Not what country these skills come from. We have plenty of our own people to do the jobs that don't require more than a high school education. Not everyone has the means or inclination to go to college.

    The last thing we need is more unskilled "baby machines" coming here cranking 'em out as fast as they can for the taxpayer to feed, clothe and educate! I for one am sick to death of working harder and harder to support the other half of the population that doesn't work at all! We don't need any more lazy, useless mouths to feed in this country. – THAT JOB HAS BEEN FILLED!

    June 8, 2012 at 3:02 pm | Reply
  5. paginger

    Yes...we need more people willing to accept low wages and live 10 people in a 2 bedroom apartment. I'm willing to bet the writer of this article lives in a posh neighborhood and doesn't have to worry about them moving into his neighborhood.

    June 8, 2012 at 3:02 pm | Reply
  6. CT

    I completely disagree with this article. If the U.S. wants to bring in more doctors, high-tech workers or similar intelligent people then I'm all for that. What we don't need is minimum wage/low skilled workers flooding the country and adding to the decline in IQ levels and the plummeting U.S. ranks in worldwide education levels.

    June 8, 2012 at 3:02 pm | Reply
  7. Natfka

    This article misses the entire point. Its not immigrants that people are fed up with, its illegal immigrants.

    June 8, 2012 at 3:03 pm | Reply
  8. OldMo

    Which country in the world accepts the most immigrants every year (not even counting illegals)? You'll never get the straight goods from a one-worlder propagandist like Fareed "Council of Foreign Relations and Trilateral Commission" Zakaria.

    June 8, 2012 at 3:04 pm | Reply
  9. obamaliar

    Just not the illegal ones

    June 8, 2012 at 3:04 pm | Reply
  10. Carbunko

    Oklahoma City Thunder will take it ALL!!!!

    June 8, 2012 at 3:05 pm | Reply
  11. Joe L

    Obviously the editor is dilusional to think that people should be able to migrate freely around the world depleting resources as they go. A society cannot survive if it is overrun by the masses, just because that society may be better off than another without a measure of control to integrate legal immigrants. In addition, the editor identifies that people complain about immigrants taking U.S. jobs, but he fails to mention that the complaints are about illegal immigrants. Yes, ILLEGAL! America has laws and a unique culture blended from legal migration that must not bend to those who want to destroy this rule of our land! The editor talks a good game, but how many immigrants is he putting up in his home or directly funding to have a better life in America? My guess is zero...

    June 8, 2012 at 3:05 pm | Reply
  12. Beetlejuice

    "... why is it still deemed acceptable to discriminate against people on the basis of where they happen to have been born?"
    = = = = =
    Because there's this thing called "culture", which informs people's views about what is the proper way to behave in various situations. For ONE instance, "honor killings" are approved in some cultures - but not here. Slavery is approved in some cultures – but not here. Women-as-chattel is a cultural norm elsewhere, but - nope, not here.

    In order for immigrants to benefit our culture and for our culture to be beneficial to them, it's important to allow ONLY THOSE WHO SHARE OUT CULTURAL UNDERSTANDING OF WHAT IS RIGHT AND PROPER into the country.

    June 8, 2012 at 3:05 pm | Reply
  13. Reasonably

    Let's be clear – we do not want people to come to the US illegally. Folks that want to come to this country legally and not be a drain on it's resources – come on down. Folks that want to pop over the border illegally just to get on the government teat – stay the he ll out.

    June 8, 2012 at 3:06 pm | Reply
  14. Silly People

    Whoever is bashing on immigrants, your ancestor one way or another were immigrants too (unless you are Native Americans)... Hypocrite much?

    June 8, 2012 at 3:06 pm | Reply
    • Rock

      illegal immigration to the US wasn't exactly against the law back then now was it

      June 8, 2012 at 3:09 pm | Reply
    • Vyger

      Baseline arguements like yours have no place being efforted here among adults. Ellis Island is where my family entered legally into the United States under the laws of the land. A concept that I believe you will have a difficult time understanding. Kind of like you don't understand the existing laws governing immigration.

      June 8, 2012 at 3:28 pm | Reply
  15. Texas16

    Wow, it looks like there are so many against immigrants! Let us not forget that you are here because of immigration, unless you descend from American Indian!!

    June 8, 2012 at 3:06 pm | Reply
  16. ac

    yes, US needs immigrant but it should be GOOD immigrant, Productive immigrant....?!

    June 8, 2012 at 3:06 pm | Reply
  17. hemo

    we need legal ones, not the leaches, the contributors. if they come here and work hard like the good citizens then i think they're more than welcome

    June 8, 2012 at 3:07 pm | Reply
  18. Rock

    The author of this article makes a point, but it is a faulty one. While it is true that the various successfull men he named were born outside of the US he negelcts to mention that these men are an incredibly small representation of the population. Common sense prevails that if you let in a population of primarily proven intelligent people (engineers, scientists, doctors, etc) they will contribute more than a population of children and other families srtiving to "make it out"

    June 8, 2012 at 3:07 pm | Reply
  19. Ralph

    Are you kidding me? Come to my neighborhood....and you will ask for a drastic change in immigration....

    June 8, 2012 at 3:08 pm | Reply
  20. greg

    The world does not need the US to bring in more people especially from developing countries, which usually results in a sharp increase to a person's carbon footprint. The US does not need more immigrants. The country is full. Our cities sprawl too much as is. I do not aspire our country to look like India or China.

    June 8, 2012 at 3:08 pm | Reply
  21. como1

    This article is somewhat disingenuous. The people of the US should not and the vast majority do not discriminate againt LEGAL Aliens in the US. Illegal is not a race, gender, color, religion or disability it is a condition of being in a place where the law says you are now allowed. No where in this article does Zacharia discuss the legal conditions to enter the US. The US allows more legal immigrants in each year than all the rest of the World COMBINED. His article is insulting to this premise of the American Dream (the Legally here American Dream).

    June 8, 2012 at 3:09 pm | Reply
  22. Southern Guy

    I don't think anyone has anything against LEGAL immigration. That has nothing to do with the problem. This country has hundreds of thousands of ILLEGAL immigrants. And for a woman to be able to cross the border a couple of days before their baby is born, then that baby is a citizen? Are you kidding me?!? That is wrong, and everybody knows it. Just wait. Sooner or later, it will be proven that terrorists are making their way across the borders. THEN is it okay?

    June 8, 2012 at 3:09 pm | Reply
  23. Ryan

    my feeling is, would the original country that the immigrant is from accept thousands and thousands of American's moving to their country? Not likely, so why should it be our duty to be more gracious? because we are prodominetly caucasian and our guilt for past deeds, dictates such.

    June 8, 2012 at 3:09 pm | Reply
  24. Worried

    I recommend the person that wrote this article goes and stands and watches the line at a Giant or any low income family grocery store and watch how many of those immigrants pay with Food Stamps! I believe in immigration but the legal kind where they apply for entry to this country in their countries of origin, and only allowed in to the U.S. after passing serious scrutiny and verification that they will not become a burden to the Citizens of this great nation. Too much abuse of the taxpayers has already taken place. We cannot afford to continue to get into debt at the detriment of the life style of this country. Anyone that comes here must be able to support themselves and not go on to live on welfare or any other social assistance program.

    June 8, 2012 at 3:10 pm | Reply
    • ES

      The food stamps, though, are not for immigrants but for their US born children, who are US citizens by the US law. US need sto abolish granting automatic citizenship to kids born on the US soil. Nobody else does it and this law gets abused big time by illegal immigrants.

      June 8, 2012 at 3:47 pm | Reply
  25. PK

    1) This author (as many do) seems to be mixing up the objections to immigration with the objections to illegal immigration.
    2) The US has a much more lax immigration policy than most other countries. Try to emigrate to Europe and in order to get a work Visa you have to have a job first and that job has to pay a minimum amount... Our country simply can not support immigrants coming here to LOOK for work...

    June 8, 2012 at 3:10 pm | Reply
    • ES

      > Try to emigrate to Europe and in order to get a work Visa you have to have a job first and that job has to pay a minimum amount

      Exactly the same in the US. These visas are called H1B , there is 65K cap per year and itis usually filled within 1-2 months ( January-February). The rest have to either wait until next year or give up, even if there is a job lines up for them they cannot get it once quota is hit.

      June 8, 2012 at 3:45 pm | Reply
  26. Dwise

    Only way to keep the Ponzi schemes going...

    June 8, 2012 at 3:11 pm | Reply
  27. sv

    Very nice article, but keep it real: Obama's dad wasn't a goatherd. Doing a chore as a child hardly identifies a person. This is someone who was able to come study in the US based on achievements at home.

    June 8, 2012 at 3:11 pm | Reply
  28. David


    My goodness! Gay Americans who were on the front lines of two recent wars and have been on the front lines of all wars were only given their rights to speak just last year. The corpse of the Republican gift of Don't Ask, Don't Tell is barely cold and not yet fully buried. Only two Republican Senators crossed the lines to vote with their Democratic counterparts to end this shameful era in our history. Let's work on the inalienable rights of Americans first. The Supreme Court told us in 2003 in Texas vs. Lawrence to stop interfering in the lives of gay Americans, but Republicans never got the memo. They are also responsible for the truly egregious roadblocks to immigration reform. Their strong tendencies toward flag waving and invoking the name of God at every turn have them stuck in a strongly nationalistic narrative where fully gay Americans and immigrants will never be fully included in this short span we call life.

    June 8, 2012 at 3:11 pm | Reply
  29. Jbb4real

    IMO all immigration should be stopped until unemployment is down to atleast 5%, and then only allow those with a job waiting to come in on an anual work visa. No longer working go home, continue to work and be productive and become a citizen automatically in 5 years. People need to realize that we have record unemployment and out of control immigration which both need to reigned in and controlled to ensure that our contry prospers. If we just continue to keep the doors wide open then we will over populate and exhaust all of our resources both natural and economical.

    June 8, 2012 at 3:12 pm | Reply
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