Immigration lessons for the U.S. from around the world
New citizens wave flags before being sworn in during a Naturalization Ceremony in October at the Statue of Liberty.
June 10th, 2012
10:41 AM ET

Immigration lessons for the U.S. from around the world

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" which aired on CNN on Sunday, June 10. Watch on CNN International on Saturday, June 16, at 4 a.m. and 9 p.m. ET

Immigrants founded America hundreds of years ago, coming to the promised land in search of freedom and opportunity, in pursuit of the American dream.

Today, many Americans see immigrants as a danger to that dream.

They worry that immigrants are taking their jobs, using government services and changing the country's national identity. The average American believes that 39% of the U.S. population was born abroad. The real figure is 13%, still the highest level since 1920.

Related: How much do you know about U.S. immigration?

Immigration is divisive, a wedge issue in this election year. But most Americans (73%) agree that the government is doing a poor job of managing it.

So, how should the U.S. handle immigration? Does anyone else do it better? What can the U.S. learn from successes – and possible mistakes – from other countries?

Let’s look at three examples: Japan, Europe and Canada.


Japan has one of the strictest immigration policies in the world and has historically been closed off to outsiders. It has a foreign population of less than 2% - six times smaller than the percentage of the U.S.

But what are the effects of keeping foreigners out?

Japan is facing an alarming labor shortage, says Robert Guest, the business editor of The Economist and author of "Borderless Economics."

Japan’s current population is around a 127 million. It’s on pace to be just 90 million by 2050, a drop-off of almost one-third. The nation is also aging. Almost one in four people are 65 or older – making Japan the oldest country on earth.

Guest says there’s a solution to the labor shortage: open the borders and invite more immigrants.

But that idea has hurdles.

“They don't have the idea that you can become Japanese,” says Guest. “And they don't have the idea that you can solve some of the country's chronic labor problems by importing foreign hands.”

In its health care sector, for example, Japan is estimated to be short almost 900,000 workers 2025. It started to invite foreign nurses, and since 2008 almost 600 have come to Japan.

But only 66 have passed Japan’s notoriously difficult nursing proficiency exam, which requires an expertise in written Japanese.

Japan’s health ministry has made the test easier, adding some English translations, but critics say it’s still unreasonable.

“It should be good enough that they are able to communicate verbally with people and that they are able to read the words they need to know for the tools of their trade,” says Guest. “It worked perfectly well in other countries.”

And it’s not just foreign workers who might run into obstacles. In some cases, it’s immigrants who have been living in Japan for decades.

In 1990, facing a labor shortage, Japan gave ethnic Japanese from South America long-term residence status, filling gaps in its workforce.

Japanese-Brazilians filled manufacturing jobs and became the third largest minority in Japan.

But in 2009, with unemployment running high, Japan actually offered money to them to leave the country – $3,000 for each worker to cover travel expenses.

And the flight was essentially a one-way ticket – anyone who took the offer couldn’t come back to Japan with the residence status they once had.

The government says it was only trying to help unemployed Japanese-Brazilians. They’ve stopped offering the deal and are reconsidering the residence status of those who took the money.

So if Japan won’t let in immigrants, what is it doing about its labor shortage?

It’s encouraging families to have more children, giving them $165 a month for each child. But that hasn’t been enough to inspire a growth spurt.


Europe faces a similar demographic crisis as Japan, but it’s trying a more open approach to immigration.

It’s easy to forget that the European Union itself is one of the most ambitious migration experiments in history. Half a billion people are allowed to roam freely within the EU’s borders.

Many predicted that swarms of people from poorer nations like Poland and Romania would move to rich countries like Germany and France. That never happened – only 3% of working-age EU citizens live in a different EU country.

But the EU has not dealt well with immigrants from outside its borders.

There’s been a nasty political backlash – with anti-immigrant parties thriving in Greece, the Netherlands and France.

Rather than rejecting these extremists, Europe’s mainstream politicians have pandered to them. Former French President Nicholas Sarkozy, British Prime Minister David Cameron and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany have all declared that multiculturalism in their countries is a failure.

“They all agree multiculturalism is dead,” says Chem Ozdemir, born in Germany to Turkish migrant workers. “It's amazing that they agree on that, but they do not agree when it comes to euro and on other issues.”

Ozdemir, now head of Germany’s left-leaning Green Party, became the first ethnic-Turkish member of Parliament at age 28.

Now, he helps his nation to answer a very basic question: What does it mean to be German?

“Can you be a German and have a head scarf at the same time? Can you be a German and practice Islam at the same time?” Ozdemir says.

Jonathan Laurence, author of “The Emancipation of Europe’s Muslims,” is hopeful on Islam’s place in Europe. In a GPS guest post this week, Laurence writes:

The key development is that as the proportion of Muslims of foreign nationality residing in Europe decreases – because the number of native-born Muslims is growing – Europe’s democratic political institutions are increasingly kicking in. For decades, the absence of integration policy allowed foreign governments and transnational movements to capture the religious and political interests of this new minority. This wasn’t multiculturalism so much as indifference.

The series of terrorist attacks against Western capitals from 2001-2005, however, in combination with high unemployment and educational under-performance, ended Europeans’ hands-off approach. After leaving them outside domestic institutions for decades, governments gradually took ownership of their Muslim populations. Authorities began to treat Islam as a domestic religion and encouraged Muslims to embrace national citizenship.

In Germany, for example, the government has met with Muslim leaders at an annual German Islam conference since 2006, in an effort to better integrate Muslims with the rest of the population.

Germany and others are certainly making strides, but throughout Europe, there are still obstacles to immigrants’ inclusion.

So, is there any nation that’s getting immigration right?


If Japan’s strict immigration policy serves as a cautionary tale and Europe’s experiment is still a work in progress, then take a look at Canada – a nation with more foreign-born per capita than the United States.

Canada may not have the cache the U.S. does – but it holds great appeal for would-be immigrants, says The Economist’s Guest.

“Canada offers many of the same things that America does – a very high standard of living, the rule of law, peace, safety,” he says.

To determine whom it should let in to live and work, Canada uses a point system. You don't even need a job or employer, just skills. Applicants are awarded points for proficiency in education, languages and job experience.

Just why is Canada so ready to accept immigrants with open arms?

Because it has to be.

The nation is sparsely populated, has a low birth rate, and needs immigrants for population growth – and economic growth.

In Canada, almost two-thirds of permanent visas last year were given for economic needs – Canada's economic needs, that is.

The country brings in the majority of foreigners to fill labor holes.

Only 22% of its immigration was for family reasons: reuniting mothers with children, brothers with sisters, grandparents with grandchildren.

In the U.S., the opposite is true. Only 13% of green cards last year were doled out for economic reasons, while two-thirds were for family reunions.

When Nahed Nenshi became the first Muslim mayor of a major Canadian city in 2010, he shattered Calgary's "redneck" stereotype.

“When I was running for office, it was only people who were not from here who said ‘Whoa, is Calgary ready for a mayor like that?’” he says. “The people in Calgary just said, ‘Ah, it's a kid from the East End. We know him.’"

Canada’s real challenge, says Nenshi, is ensuring the economic and social integration of immigrants once they are living in the country.

“It's not about burkas and kirpans. It's about saying to an engineer who was trained in Iran or China, how can we get you working as an engineer instead of a janitor as quickly as possible?” he says. “These are very serious challenges. And we haven't got it right. But I would much prefer we focus our energies there rather than on these meaningless culture war discussions that occasionally crop up ... because those don't make a difference in people's lives.”

The public and Parliament in Canada generally support continued immigration. “Immigration is unambiguously good for the economy. We know that those folks come, they invest here, they create jobs, they work here,” says Nenshi. “There's not much of a policy debate on that in Canada."

While the prime minister of Great Britain, the former president of France and the chancellor of Germany have all declared that in their context multiculturalism has failed, that's not so in Canada, says Nenshi.

“I'm not here to question their reality. It's their reality,” he says. “But I think it's important for us Canadians, and particularly for Calgarians, to really tell a story loudly and proudly about a place where it works, where diversity works, where multiculturalism works, where pluralism works. It ain’t rocket science.”


Canada and also Australia now have smart immigration policies that take in talented foreigners who have skills the country needs and determination and drive to succeed.

As a result, they have transformed themselves into immigrant countries, with a foreign-born population that is higher than the United States.

Australia, which only 15 years ago had strong strains of nativism and xenophobia dominating its political culture, now has more than a quarter of its population as foreign born – double America’s share – and is thriving because of the economic growth and cultural diversity.

Canada's foreign-born population is almost 20%; the U.S. is 13%, just a little higher than Great Britain's.

Related: Why American needs immigration

The United States is not the world's only – nor the largest – immigrant society anymore.

And that will have consequences economically, culturally and in other ways, says Fareed Zakaria:

It's a sad state, because the U.S. remains a model for the world. It is the global melting pot, the place where a universal nation is being created. We may not do immigration better than everyone else anymore, but we do assimilation better than anyone else. People from all over the world come to this country and, almost magically, become Americans.

They - I should say we - come to the country with drive and dedication and over time develop a fierce love for America. This infusion of talent, hard work and patriotism has kept the country vital for the past two centuries. And if we can renew it, it will keep America vital in the 21st century as well.

What do you think? What can the U.S. learn from other countries' immigration policies? Share your comments below and check out some past responses.

Or see what Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach has to say, from this excerpt from "Global Lessons: The GPS Roadmap for Making Immigration Work"

and also New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg

More from Global Lessons: Immigration

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Topics: Canada • Europe • Global Lessons • Immigration • Japan

soundoff (847 Responses)
  1. Frank


    June 12, 2012 at 10:38 am | Reply
  2. te

    Another ignorant article. Most do not have any issue or problem with LEGAL immigrations. It is the ILLEGAL immigration that most take issue with. I am sick of the media failing to distinguish between the two.

    June 12, 2012 at 12:11 pm | Reply

    •Big Corporations are lying off citizens but visa workers. Is that acceptable to you Mr. Fareed?
    •Visa workers change jobs as often as a citizen would do, even in this rough economy. Is that acceptable to you Mr. Fareed? The visa worker is a contract worker who should stay in the job that he is hired and leave the country if that job is no longer available.
    •Visa workers know the loop holes in our legal system better than most American lawyers. For example if you put them on layoff they figured out a way to drive taxis around metropolitan cities, because they don’t get unemployment benefits, but they make sure they stay here until they find next opportunity.
    •Visa workers run businesses. For example, they own training centers, private firms and other types of businesses. Is that acceptable to you Mr. Fareed? Do you bring them here to make use of their unique skills for the corporation that hired them?. What about these illegal activities what agency is watching them? Our broken system ?

    Do you think Obama or his team care, but they rather use this issue like footbal ball so they can impress Latino vote bank. Now wonder why GOP uses this issue to energize the far right Republicans.

    June 12, 2012 at 2:36 pm | Reply
  4. 911jewjob

    www DOT youtube DOT com/watch?v=FJjSzXkm55o How Jews Divide and Conquer

    June 12, 2012 at 4:49 pm | Reply
  5. Midwestern Cowboy

    Anti immigrants tell us that the illegals taking all the jobs! Then the next time they say illegals are all welfare and food stamps! Which is it?

    Illegals are not eligible for government benefits like food stamps, welfare, regular medicaid, or unemployment insurance! But the anti immigrants will not let that fact out.

    June 12, 2012 at 4:52 pm | Reply
    • Jen

      In fact, "both" to your first question, and "yes they are" to your second. This may not be so in your state, but where I'm from, illegal immigrants work "under the table". So they are taking jobs from Americans and legal immigrants, but it's unofficial and they are technically unemployed. Because of this, illegal or not, their children all recieve a free education, free lunch, and the whole family gets free medical care, etc, all paid for by American tax dollars.

      June 17, 2012 at 6:01 pm | Reply
      • Boto

        For an hour, why not try doing the work they do for you?

        July 15, 2012 at 5:37 pm |
  6. juan petro

    Stop immigation from lowering wages, no financially succesful country/region allows mass immigration, and if so it is a success in spite of and not because of it

    June 12, 2012 at 5:33 pm | Reply
  7. steve

    Canada and also Australia now have smart immigration policies that take in talented foreigners who have skills the country needs and determination and drive to succeed.

    It does not let everyone in, you can't just wander across the border and stay.

    June 12, 2012 at 8:28 pm | Reply
    • Boto

      For every skilled legal immigrants, there are two or more unskilled illegal immigrants who make it possible for the skilled immigrant to work productively.

      July 15, 2012 at 5:29 pm | Reply
  8. miscreantsall

    Since most of the legal and illegal immigrants in the USA are Mexican……….why hasn't anyone brought up the blaring contraction of Mexican immigration policy vs USA immigration policy?

    Look it up, it's hysterical. You could wait a lifetime to become a citizen of Mexico (not that you would want to)!

    June 13, 2012 at 4:14 am | Reply
  9. William

    Today, many Americans see immigrants as a danger to that dream? I call it BS. Its illegal immigration that is seen as the threat. According to the Border Patrol about 7 of every 10 individuals under 18 years of age, who were apprehended by U.S Border Patrol last year - 16,067 individuals - were unaccompanied, according to the latest federal statistics. The data show that the total 23,089 illegal aliens under age 18 were arrested by the Border Patrol covering all borders. Isnt Fareed Zakaria an immigrant? I bet he makes more money than i do. Yet all he ever does is slander the USA and praise Europe.

    June 13, 2012 at 7:32 am | Reply
    • Amit-Atlanta-USA

      I entirely agree with you.

      I am myself an immigrant from India (like Mr. Zakaria) and strongly believe in the fairness of most Americans.

      And, on your comment about Mr. Zakaria being softer on Europe it's quite correct.........ONLY b'coz they are accomodating hordes of legal & illegal immigrants mainly from Muslim countries and providing them liberal dole, and ensuring that Europe is set on a path of SURE & STEADY ISLAMIZATION........which fits in well with Mr. Zakaria's overall agenda!!!!

      June 14, 2012 at 9:42 am | Reply
    • Boto

      For every skilled legal immigrant, there are two or more unskilled illegal immigrants who make it possible for the skilled immigrant to work productively.

      July 15, 2012 at 5:29 pm | Reply

      July 15, 2012 at 5:35 pm | Reply
  10. YLpz

    I like Fareed very much as a reporter. He's very professional and very meticulous in his work. Regarding the Immigration topic; I think most people that oppose this article (or those who oppose immigration in this country) for that matter have erroenoeus preconceived ideas of what is really like to be an immigrant and what the benefits of immigration are to the country. Sadly, in my opinion; we as human beings have not really evolved beyond racism. Because that is really what the core of the issue is RACISM plain and simple. We tend to see someone who is "different" from what we are accostumed to seeing as "normal" as bad/criminals/ and every other negative connotiation we can possibly come up with when referring to immigrants. Maybe if we start seeing people (no matter their country of birth or their race) for who they really are as individuals; we can become better individuals ourselves and in the process better our country.

    June 13, 2012 at 1:50 pm | Reply
    • Keith

      I couldn't help but notice that you do not differentiate between legal and illegal immigration. I'm also pretty sure it was intentional. That's what people like you do. This country was built by hard working LEGAL immigrants. The laws have changed over time for a very good reason. We cannot afford to keep taking in millions of poor, illiterate people who need help from the taxpaying citizens to survive.

      June 24, 2012 at 3:36 pm | Reply
      • Boto

        We can no longer own slaves. So we take in illegal immigrants to be our slaves. The only difference is, the modern day slaves are free to leave and improve themselves. It is better than he slavery we practiced a long time ago when they were chained.

        July 15, 2012 at 5:41 pm |
  11. rick

    I'm so sick of this b.s. argument the left trys to shape by calling it "immigration". We don't hate immigrants! It's "illegal immigrants" we don't want in the country.

    June 13, 2012 at 3:59 pm | Reply
  12. Angela

    what shall we do with our lazy people over here where to send them?

    June 13, 2012 at 10:10 pm | Reply
  13. Somebody

    Those Jews are thieves in United States, they stole Abraham Lincoin Revolution from us people..

    Reply ans Suppourt

    June 14, 2012 at 8:54 am | Reply
  14. Loraine

    We have no way of determining which Muslims are Islamic supremacists and which completely reject Sharia law. Islamic supremacists seek to undermine and eventually overthrow democratic countries. Orthodox Islam has a political goal: the domination of Islam over all other religions and governments.

    When Muslims move to a country, a certain percentage of them start agitating for special considerations. They start to organize and influence the nation politically in a way that is good for Islam and bad for freedom and equality. When the percentage of the Muslims in a nation's population becomes high enough, freedoms and rights begin to disappear.

    Until we have a way of determining who is an Islamic supremacist and who is a heterodox Muslim, no more Muslims should be allowed to immigrate into free countries.

    Does this seem extreme? It's not as bad as it might seem. Each country already chooses who can immigrate and who cannot. We are not under any obligation to allow anyone to immigrate who wants to. They do it with our blessing or they don't do it.

    So this policy is simply adding to the already-existing filter.

    This is not racist. Islam is not a race; it's an ideology. The policy of stopping Muslim immigration is simply acknowledging the reality of the Islamic teachings. If you don't know what Islam teaches, please take the pledge and read the Quran.

    June 14, 2012 at 7:57 pm | Reply
  15. JimmyH

    I think the author misses the whole point, perhaps intentionally. The issue was never about acceptance of immigration into the U.S. The issues arose from ILLEGAL immigration, those who can't or won't stand their place in line and follow the rules already in place intended to regulate LEGAL immigration. Over time, this author and others have dropped the word ILLEGAL from in front of any use of the word immigration and are trying to support the acceptance of ILLEGALS by blending and combining them in with LEGAL immigrantion, as if ILLEGAL immigrants are just another, acceptable facet of the topic of immigration as a whole . Immigration was not an issue until the heavy influx of ILLEGALS from Central and South America began to impact existing city and state services, education and our health care systems which were and are meant for the use of all citizens. Having to support additional, ILLEGAL squatters is what made this an issue.

    June 15, 2012 at 12:11 pm | Reply
    • JR

      Perfect summation!

      It is the ILLEGALS that screwed up immigration.

      My wife is from another country and we brought her here Legally and she is appaulled at how the US "allows" ILLEGALS.

      June 15, 2012 at 2:13 pm | Reply
    • Jen

      Absolutely right. The author stated that Canada uses a point system allowing people in based on their skills, education, etc. I wish he had pointed out that the VAST majority of immigrants that come to the U.S. have none!! But that would be politically incorrect.

      June 17, 2012 at 5:50 pm | Reply
  16. DSmith

    Immigration Laws:
    1. There will be no special bilingual programs in the schools.
    2. All ballots will be in this nation’s language.
    3. All government business will be conducted in our language.
    4. Non-residents will NOT have the right to vote.
    5. Non-citizens will NEVER be able to hold political office.
    6. Foreigners will not be a burden to taxpayers. No welfare, no food stamps, no health care or any other burden. Any burden will be deported.
    7. Foreigners can invest but must be at least equal to 40,000 times daily minimum wage.
    8. Foreigners can buy land with options restricted and no waterfront property.
    9. No protests, No demonstrations, No foreign flag waving or organizing will be allowed.
    10. Illegals will be actively hunted, sent to jail and deported if caught. All assets will be seized.

    Too strict? The above laws are the current laws of Mexico.

    June 15, 2012 at 2:53 pm | Reply
    • Sami

      lol, cool laws, i hope these laws bring prosperity for the nation lol...

      June 17, 2012 at 12:21 pm | Reply
  17. Jack

    Good afternoon. Everyone is graciously invited to visit my web site –

    June 15, 2012 at 7:16 pm | Reply
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