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. Abbot

    Funny they did not talk about China and India. China and India has zero immigration policy and they are going to be the new Super powers. Any country that has a strong muslim population is soon to be doomed. China will be a power becasue they are ruthless with thier muslim population and so is India.

    June 11, 2012 at 10:58 am | Reply
  2. Abbot

    Funny they did not talk about China and India. China and India has zero immigration policy and they are going to be the new Super powers. Any country that has a strong muslim population is soon to be doomed. China will be a power becasue they are ruthless with thier muslim population and so is India.
    Also its funny how they did not talk about how the Europeans govt are taking lessons from teh US on how to better integrate thier muslim population.
    Hell with multiculture, and yea to melting pots.

    June 11, 2012 at 11:00 am | Reply
  3. Simon Abela

    Sorry I came to America as we are Christians, I respect other Religions but I dont want to even think about Sharia law. when I worked in the Middle East i had to respect thier culture I aspect the same when you come here to my country.
    I came here legally and love this country so i say to others if you dont like our way, hop on the plane and return to where you left from.

    June 11, 2012 at 11:20 am | Reply
  4. zaglossus

    Lowering the population is the best policy even though it will lead to a couple of generations of an aged population and a sluggish economy before things pick up. We just can't keep growing. Indeed there are already too many of us.

    June 11, 2012 at 11:24 am | Reply
  5. smash

    You didn't talk about Canada's Quebec Province. Quebec is allowed to set it own immigration policy. The policies for immigration favors French speakers and those willing to integrate into Quebec society. Many immigrants from French speaking North Africa have immigrated to Quebec. Because of this there is a Jihad Watch in Quebec since these new immigrants are Muslims. You also forgot to mention that Chinese immigrants who have a million dollars can immigrate to Canada. How does one become a millionaire in a Communist country ? In a communist country, all means of production are owned by the State ! The second question is, why is China allowing these people to leave ? I didn't know China had an open immigration policy.

    You didn't fully report on the growing concern in Britain about immigration and their growing Muslim population. You glanced over Muslim terrorism in Britain and Muslim calls for Sharia Law in Britain .

    June 11, 2012 at 11:47 am | Reply
    • Mark L.

      please get your facts straight. China isn't communist any more.

      June 11, 2012 at 3:50 pm | Reply
  6. Dude

    We need to do more with the human potential of U.S. citizens. Companies would hire smart citizens with a good work ethic and provide any required on-the-job training. Work got done by people with diverse backgrounds. Lots of people grew into more advanced roles in fields like telecommunications and IT. People pursued and obtained the certifications their employers wanted. This built a solid middle class in a vibrant information / service economy. Now, companies hire replacement Americans from abroad. This has kicked the chair out from under the middle class. This is why our country is failing.

    June 11, 2012 at 12:04 pm | Reply
  7. 11:11

    Fareed Zakaria needs a lesson in STFU.

    June 11, 2012 at 12:11 pm | Reply
  8. solutions777

    Smart immigration policies are beneficial to the nation. But even Canada and Australia's policies could be significantly improved. The main problem with an immigrant population is that they do not assimilate. Also, apparent labor shortages are not real. There is plenty of labor, but it is not being used efficiently or effectively.

    Censorship is evil.

    June 11, 2012 at 12:11 pm | Reply
  9. Dave NY USA

    LABOR ISSUES is a reason to allow immigrants in? Look how many immigrants are on welfare, and HAVE been for years.

    June 11, 2012 at 12:20 pm | Reply
    • Bill

      Legal immigrants are considerably LESS likely to use welfare then U.S. born citizens. Asia immigrants, for example, actually average a higher salary and pay more taxes then the average American. Illegals do use many different programs and have a high cost, but they do not qualify for welfare.

      June 11, 2012 at 12:46 pm | Reply
  10. Jim

    The majority of americas have no interest in keeping foreigners out.
    This is another attempt at muddying the issue.

    No one wants to most of us just don't want to watch our economy capsize, by having tens of millions of people running around the country, using the services that tax paying americans are paying for, but not paying a dime of income tax.

    June 11, 2012 at 12:21 pm | Reply
    • Jim

      The 2nd sentence got jumbled....while posting...
      Should read:
      Most of us just don't want........

      June 11, 2012 at 12:25 pm | Reply
  11. Dan

    Once again a ridiculously biased article that spins half-truths and ignores facts to prove a point and force an agenda. American's are generous people. We have never said no to immigration. What we are saying today is NO TO ILLEGAL, uncontrolled, unassimilated immigration. A HUGE DIFFERENCE! If FZ actually cared to write a fair piece on the subject, then he needs to be fair to BOTH sides. But because he wants only one thing (open borders), he paints the other side as bigots. He loses any credibility when he does this. ILLEGAL IMMIGRATION IS BAD! No matter how you want to spin the facts, uncontrolled borders are a danger to ANY sovereign nation. Controlled immigration is good. Let's be honest for once about the real debate, and then maybe we can discuss the issue and come to an understanding and compromise. Until then, we have nothing to discuss and no amnesty to give.

    June 11, 2012 at 12:35 pm | Reply
  12. Bill

    Though the press tries to ball them together like the article above, there is a vast difference in legal and illegal immigrants. Most people have a problem with the latter, and not the former. Writing above, that the public in general is "anti-immigrant" is misleading. Most people just want illegals to play by the rules that others must obey.

    June 11, 2012 at 12:39 pm | Reply
  13. Atul Chaudhary

    Lesson learned from immigrants.

    Number one reason why immigrants to US are successful than their American counter parts is THE FAMILY. They have strong family values which makes them feel secure, allows them to take risks, they have someone to go back to. Our broken families are the reason why we have a huge mess. A single mom is expected to work, be a dad, and be a good mom at home. If she has a support of someone else (like her husband), she can share some of her burdens. These moms are going through depressions. Come on people. Women, don't give in to these losers who are afraid to say "I DO". You deserve much more than that.

    June 11, 2012 at 12:50 pm | Reply
  14. outspoken123

    Mexicans are going back to home, so USA has trouble finding to do those filthy jobs. Now bring those foreigners.

    June 11, 2012 at 12:53 pm | Reply
  15. doughnuts

    I would like to see two things happen with regards to illegal aliens coming across our southern border:

    1) A Presidential Finding that illigal immigration presents a clear and present danger to the United States.
    2) A suspension of of Posse Commitatus allowing the US military to be deployed along that southern border to interdict, detain, and deport any illegal border-crossers.

    If there are a few incidents where those trying to enter illegally are shot, so be it. Enter legally, or stay out. If you can't qualify to get in legally, then we don't want you.

    It would be nice to get a reinterpretation of the first part of the 14th Amendment that granted jus solis citizenship to those children born to parents who are in the country legally (the way it was supposed to be read), rather than the "achor baby" interpretation it was given, but I'm not gonna count on that.

    June 11, 2012 at 12:54 pm | Reply
    • Bill

      If you actually went after the businesses that hire illegals, which now occurs only rarely, you could put a string on the border, since there will be no jobs. In 2010, only something like 200 businesses were fined. That is ridiculous.

      June 11, 2012 at 1:12 pm | Reply
  16. Mirza

    Let me tell you about the Canadian immigration thing, if the United States allow the Canadians to come to USA and live and work and let go of the Canada nationality, trust me 90% of the immigrants will do it in a heart beat.

    Thats because Canada is a racist country to the core, where if you are an immigrant can work as a taxi driver, a security guard or a janitor but to get a job in the office is almost twice difficult in comparability to a white Canadian.
    This I am talking about an person who has the required skills better than a white Canadian, dont believe me go and ask the security guards and the cab drivers. In Canada they are very proud of the people having a PhD and driving a cab, in reality these stupid Canadians should drown themselves because they are loosing on the precious human resources because they are trying to hold on to the racist policies. East or West United States is the best and that's it.

    June 11, 2012 at 12:55 pm | Reply
    • Oppsie

      "loosing" lol

      June 11, 2012 at 2:05 pm | Reply
  17. David B

    It is deceptive to quote statistics for the entire US, when many areas of the US have a very high percentage of foreign born. California has about the same population size as Canada yet has a greater percent of foreign born than Canada. 27% of California is foreign born and 20% of Canada is foreign born.

    June 11, 2012 at 1:18 pm | Reply
  18. Nativist

    I wouldn't expect an immigrant like Fareed to be anything but pro immigration. It can only be a "win win".

    The many costs of immigration to the native population of the receiving country are deliberately ignored, of course.:P

    June 11, 2012 at 1:30 pm | Reply
  19. DSmith

    This alledged news story is full of misinformation and is an open border puff piece. Item: 80% of illegals have been in the US for over 7 years (How do you know, they don't register. Asked one, of course they said 7 years when it was really 7 months). Item: 15% of illegals are from Mexico (Pew reports 60%. Not included are all countries of Central and South America). How is it that an alledged newcaster can get on the airwaves and spew a pack of lies.

    June 11, 2012 at 1:41 pm | Reply
  20. SJA

    American companies and American citizens take jobs in foreign countries and/or make profits (sometimes out of labor exploitation), sending all money back to the US. American business leaders and politicians are the first to criticize any country imposing restrictions to American companies/citizens. This is about reciprocity too.

    June 11, 2012 at 1:45 pm | Reply
  21. me

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

    I love this saying, how immigrants FOUNDED America. Can't find something that's been here all the while already FOUNDED by it's own people.....what comes around goes around and this is our time to deal with what our ancestors did!

    June 11, 2012 at 1:57 pm | Reply
  22. ARM

    Fareed Zakria always spin his comments hiding hard facts that is disadvantages to his political and favoured ethnic groups. He tries to show he knows it all and is an authority to comment on these things. One must be very careful to take his openion.

    June 11, 2012 at 1:58 pm | Reply
  23. me

    NOTHING will be done about immigration. EVER. It's a hot button topic that all politicians will continue to use to get votes.

    June 11, 2012 at 1:58 pm | Reply
  24. Indian

    Wow this forum clearly shows closet racism. The feelings reflected here has nothing to do with immigration. It is just closet racism getting exposed on steroids.

    There are two forms of immigration. Legal and illegal. The illegal issue is a no brainer. It has to be dealt with ruthlessly. Sorry but this is the only way.But the real worry is for legal immigrants because ppl here are pushing for laws that would make what is legal today illegal.

    June 11, 2012 at 1:58 pm | Reply
  25. John Smith

    What can the U.S. learn from Europe's MISTAKES?! Don't allow foreigners into your country, and not expect them to comply with your countries language, customs, and laws. They will simply attempt to take your socialism, and then breed you out of your country, and take it over from within.....without even firing a single shot. Something this moron Fareed Zakaria relishes dearly.

    June 11, 2012 at 2:00 pm | Reply
  26. Sama Kutra

    The USA is taking it up the wrong pipe and isnt even getting a kiss first.

    June 11, 2012 at 2:01 pm | Reply
  27. Prabhjot

    I think a country like US should be vigilant and strict with their Immigration policies after they have faced a tragedy like 9-11. I myself want to study and settle in USA but I will be more happy if I get a visa on the basis of my talent.

    P.A ~ India

    June 11, 2012 at 2:02 pm | Reply
  28. Eugene

    I was originally an immigrant to Canada, now living in the US. The author praises the Canadian system, but he definitely doesn't know the real deal. Most of the so called high skilled immigrants in Canada never find those high skilled jobs (engineers, professors, doctors). When they arrive to Canada they are faced with harsh reality, they are not needed and nobody is going to hire them just because canadian government thinks the country needs them. While I praise the skilled migration program of Canada, I believe high skilled labor is valued more in the United States, and there are more opportunities here. In fact many immigrants only come to Canada with a hope of migrating south eventually. But, I still think the US should have a skilled worker migration program which is point based (age, education, experience, language proficiency).

    June 11, 2012 at 2:02 pm | Reply
    • ARM

      Yes you are so correct about Canada. This shows how much FZ knows about what he is writing here. No matter who sas what, one must see where the truth lies.

      June 11, 2012 at 2:09 pm | Reply
    • ES

      US has a skilled immigratin program , called H1B. The good thing, you can only get H1B visa if there is a job lines up for you. The bad thing is that even though there is alot of lip service about "we support LEGAL immigration", it is not truly the case. The immigrants, even the skilled ones are seen as "taking good paying jobs from americans". They are a convinient scape goat. There is a constant din to cut H1B quotas and they have been, Then to progress from H1B to green gard process is a thing from Kafka's books, sensless and ridiculous process. All in all, if I had to do it agin, I would pick Canada vs. US. I feel unwelcome in the US as an immigrant (now naturalized citizen) and my views are closer to the mix of socialism and capitalism that Canada practices vs. US shark eats shark capitalism approach.

      June 11, 2012 at 2:19 pm | Reply
  29. Fair Tax Guy

    Implement the fair tax and I wont care where you are from

    June 11, 2012 at 2:03 pm | Reply
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