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. ryancturner

    Where can I find this available for download? I wasn't able to catch this live broadcast but would love to be abe to download it or view it in its entirety via live-stream.

    June 17, 2012 at 4:31 pm | Reply
  2. johnpicarra

    All Those Other Countries Have Border Control!
    All Those Other Countries Have Immigration Control!

    Besides with an army of drug dealers in Mexico, they better build that fence, wall, and ditch right across! Even nets into the ocean, there are now so many drug submarines!

    June 17, 2012 at 4:47 pm | Reply
  3. johnpicarra

    All those other countries have Border Control.
    All those other countries have Immigration Control.

    June 17, 2012 at 4:51 pm | Reply
  4. Jen

    I like Canada's plan. The problem with the U.S. is that we don't have those standards, we let anybody in becuase we have no standards! If you make it across the boarder illegally, oh well, we're not going to do anything about it. Immigrants that come here legally and more importantly, contribute to society, pay taxes, etc are not a problem. That improves the country. It's the ones that don't that I have a problem with. Where I'm from, the latter makes up about 95% of the immigrant population. Business owners in construction, plumbing and various other "blue collar" fields hire illegal immigrants to work under the table for anywhere from $8-$10 an hour, paying no taxes. But those same workers get food stamps, free medical care, and their kids get free education and free lunch all paid for by OUR hard earned taxes. I live in a college town, and between the 4 local colleges and 2 universities there are plenty of students that would love to dig a hole all day for $8 an hour, on the books, paying taxes. But none of the business owners will let them, they prefer foreign labor because it's less paperwork. Canada does not let in unskilled foreigners. Unskilled foreigners are the problem in the U.S., we are overflowing in them!

    June 17, 2012 at 5:42 pm | Reply
  5. Joe Peschi

    It seems Fareed Zakaria chose to ignore some important aspects of Canada's immigration policies and its effects when he chose it as the model that he thinks works.

    June 18, 2012 at 3:55 pm | Reply
  6. vinogelatina

    We are not only losing in the area of immigration, we are also losing in the area of labor. Many of the cheap jobs that immigrants used to do, in areas such agriculture and being left undone, so that is going to cost to the economy. Also many of the immigrants that were professionals end up not working in their field or work for a fraction of what an American person would get paid for that job. But by being hired they allow companies to at least stay in business and keeping the jobs here in the states. The sad part is that we are shipping a lot of intellectual jobs to other countries like India, China, and an array of countries, where intellectual work is done at one tenth of what you would have to pay in the states. Unfortunately, that causes a bigger drain to the country, because at least when you have an immigrant work in the United States, more than likely that person will spend that money in the US and create more jobs as his needs for housing, food, entertainment, appliances are served here. I particularly would like to see more of the Canadian model in the US. As immigrants thrive, they create jobs for Americans, jobs that stay here instead of being exported to China.


    June 18, 2012 at 4:22 pm | Reply
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    June 20, 2012 at 5:13 pm | Reply
  8. Muin

    There are countless news story that immigration move was a political move. I don't think so because harry reid, president tried to help these kids trhough congress for three and half years. I think President genuinely feels that those kids need help desperately. Usually you try last available option when you're close to end of your administration. So, he did exactly that to help those kids after trying all the available options.

    June 20, 2012 at 11:29 pm | Reply
  9. Robert

    Obama is concerned that he's not going to have enough votes to win reelection so he's going to import illegal aliens. I think that's called subversion.

    June 22, 2012 at 2:55 pm | Reply
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  11. Terry

    Why do you and other anchors on CNN continue to inflame this issue encouraging others from outside this Nation to continue to enter illegally. We have immigration laws currently in place and as with all other laws they only have to be enforced. Despite what others would have you believe integration without National Responsibility will never work and by swearing an oath at the time of legal entry without all of the tenets that go with a legal orderly system is necessary. The need for dual citizenship is not needed in any case as an example, unless true National Loyalties do not matter to that individual or the Nation. English is the National Language and Christianity is the founding principles under which is was created. Stop encouraging illegal behavior. Report the news facts and quit dramatizing it..

    June 22, 2012 at 4:34 pm | Reply
  12. Pete

    California, which is in fiscal crisis, has massive numbers of poor immigrants driving down wages and using government programs. The white tax base has had enough and is leaving the state. California is a multicultural basket case.

    June 23, 2012 at 1:48 pm | Reply
  13. Andrew

    We already have an overwhelming number of immigrants. Probably no one thinks in their sane mind how more immigration in an 8.5% unemployment and 2% economy will do any good.

    What can be fixed is however, controlling the quality of immigrants. UK, Canada, Australia etc. are acting rationally because buys get to choose in a buyers market.

    US is stuck in some arcane philosophy and weird policy that attracts massive number of low quality immigrants rather than limited number of high quality immigrants. Some lawmakers actually believe that such skill and qualification based system is a social engineering that will geopardize the social fabric of this country!

    July 3, 2012 at 2:40 pm | Reply
  14. marcus

    Funny how every Hispanic in the first pic is waiving an American flag. I guess their marketing dept told them that the big rallies of Hispanics waiving Mexican flags and demanding citizenship were not effective. Unfortunately, the thought process and loyalties of those involved haven't changed.

    July 13, 2012 at 4:21 pm | Reply
    • Dale Liston

      Yep, that is the media's propaganda vs. reality. I live in Turner, Kansas city KS. We are next to Argentine AKA little Mexico. You go to the "business" district and all signs are in Spanish and both homes, business and cars fly the Mexican flag. The local public library carries the free Spanish language paper that features the Latino of the month. Brown, eyed, black haired and Hispanic looking. Imagine a White power newspaper featuring a blond, blue eyed Aryan woman of the month?

      January 14, 2013 at 5:02 pm | Reply
  15. taxedmore

    I know somebody who has been here for five years. She is in 70's, she just became a citizen. She has no money or income from her old country. She is in subsidized housing (paying $25 of the $865 monthly rent), on food stamps, Medicaid and has a free cell phone with 250 free minutes a month. She gets cash from some program, don't know which. I have calculated the value of her "benefits" at just under $30,000 per year – she never worked a day in this country and never contributed a cent of tax to this country. Where is the fairness to the American taxpayer? Will there ever be an advocate for the American taxpayers?

    July 13, 2012 at 4:41 pm | Reply
    • Novel Question

      Well, then her "sponsor" for her green card is technically liable for all this government benefits incurred before she became a citizen. By law, to give someone a green card they must have a sponsor who guarantees to the government that she won't be a burden to the government. That person must now be in trouble assuming she was on these benefits before becoming a citizen!

      Learn your immigration laws! Too many myths out there about immigrants taking benefits.

      July 13, 2012 at 4:51 pm | Reply
    • Les

      And I know somebody who came to US legally on a temporary visa, couldn't renew it and keeps on living in US and paying thousands of tax dollars every year and gets nothing back, because they don't have a US ID and can't apply for any type of services. This is the usual case, not the other way around. Immigrants pay more taxes than Americans because they give and give and give, but are not allowed to take anything back. You do the math. I also know dozens of people who are considered legal immigrants because they married someone for a Green Card. Fake marriage is about the only way to get a Green Card these days, no matter how skilled you are, how many languages you speak etc etc. Total opposite of Canada, where education and skills come first. Conclusion: legal immigration=fake marriage, illegal immigration=no fake marriage. I know someone who has aGreen card from a fake marriage. He opened a business with someone with no fake marriage(no Green Card that is) , an a few months later the one with the fake marriage kicked out his business partner and stole his portion of the business. How? Hiw lawyer threatened the guy with no Green card with deporation and stole all the money he put into the business. He also wasn't paid for the 6 months of hard work he put into it. Tragic story. There is so much pain in a immigrant's life you cannot even imagine.

      July 19, 2012 at 4:52 pm | Reply
  16. Oruvan

    Technology transfers to China, outsourcing to India, China and other countries, employing Chinese spies in NASA and other industries, importing goods from China, employing sleeper cell memebrs in financial and IT/Telecom core places are the root causes for America to face all kinds of problems

    July 19, 2012 at 7:02 pm | Reply
  17. KIRA

    this is aweful to people who were born here this is truly crushing the american dream my grampa was born in the u.s in 1920 91 years ago his parents came from scottland at that time there was a immigration that changed there lifes that was there dreams while they came from scottland i had other relatives i am a todd and they were there longer and eventually someone was born here and that was mary todd lincoln who married the u.s preident abraham lincoln a persuaded great things that this contry stands for and that is being abused.

    July 25, 2012 at 8:29 pm | Reply
  18. KIRA

    yes the american dream is being crushed if you arent american and you are saying that thats bs you have no right to say that also to our justice system saying you cant efford foods and nothing is working look arounground at others this isent your country the american dream ended along time ago deal with it we work hard and our money goes to people like you who arent doing anything were farmers not foreign farmer famers teachers nurses docters ect were standing for something much greater than you think and crush that takes words away we die for our country for our flag to stand for what it says dreams came true for us when you plegue its not for you its for us for all our blood sweat and tears that this NATION WOULD BE ONE WELL ITS NOT NOW BECAUSE WERE CALLED LASEY AND THATS NOT US ITS YOU we all stand as one for evreyone but if you want that help youve lost it and we wont you out if you dont finish high school it does put shame to this country at least we give you colledge in other countrys you finish high school your done find living and they do it here you drop out we loose money and we have colledge but you never make it why risk that chance you probely couldent servive a day anyway when you see a president think

    July 25, 2012 at 8:41 pm | Reply
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    August 10, 2012 at 10:28 pm | Reply
  25. Miguel

    There are people who disagree with illegal immigration and that's fine. In fact, I am one of them. The problem is that there are many of those that actually disagree with both illegal and legal immigration but won't admit it publicly.

    August 18, 2012 at 2:08 am | Reply
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