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. obsthetimes

    Importing poor immigrants for family reunion is a bad policy practiced only by the United States. Giving amnesty and then allowing those newly minted citizens to sponsor another 30 million family members is a recipe for turning america into a middle income country.
    Educating and providing medical care for the extra 50-75 million immigrants will cost untold trillions of dollars. We need to strike a balance between being generous and being practical. Shouldn't we be generous to the current US citizens as well?

    June 11, 2012 at 2:04 pm | Reply
  2. Ezra

    In the Unitied States, it is not anti immigration but rather illegal immigration that have Americans upset. We claim to be a nation of laws unless you are illegal or liberal.

    June 11, 2012 at 2:04 pm | Reply
  3. Real funny

    Why do we have immigrants here? Let me ask you this. Why do we have our troops in other countries and all over the world. Shouldnt all of them be defending our borders? Why did we fight so many wars since ww2? If you have no problems with that, then stop whining about immigration. You send troops into other countries without a authroization and then dont expect the same treatment? Afghanistan was one valid issue, but Iraq, Libya, Veitnam and south american coutnries in the 80s? Dont give me that mumbo jumbo about freedom and democracy. I am not buying this BUSH Chenney crp anymore.

    June 11, 2012 at 2:04 pm | Reply
    • Ezra

      Name one country that we were not asked or inivited to help out! The more you type the easier it is to see your uninformed mind.

      June 11, 2012 at 2:12 pm | Reply
  4. ARM

    Hey..take a long hard look at Europe and lern from them. If you want your way of life and style of living to be in Jeopardy keep things as is. It is best that all those who immigrate follow all rules and regulations of the country that adopts them.

    June 11, 2012 at 2:04 pm | Reply
    • Foghorn Leghorn

      lern from them ?

      You gots sum lernin to do.

      June 11, 2012 at 4:42 pm | Reply
  5. CanadaONE

    Mirza YOU ARE AN IDIOT !

    Go back to IRAN

    if you come to Canada we will track you down and feed you to the polar bears- albeit you are so full of IT they will likely throw up

    June 11, 2012 at 2:07 pm | Reply
    • Foghorn Leghorn

      Dont hurt the polar bears.
      Maybe she gets trampled by a herd of elk ?

      June 11, 2012 at 4:43 pm | Reply
  6. RC

    Fareed Zakaria – I disagree with your premise. Immigration is not a divisive political issue this year and working in a major metro area, I know of no one who is against immigration. The more the merrier I say. What people are against are illegal aliens. Not only are they breaking the law, but employers will hire them at a third of the pay of citizens, thereby taking jobs. Would I would like to know Fareed is how other countries handle illegal aliens. In places like Mexico's southern border I believe they shoot them.

    June 11, 2012 at 2:08 pm | Reply
  7. Dav1

    Fareed Zakaria writes typical tripe.He quotes a few people that support his rediculus concepts and tries to create problems where there are none.LEGAL Immigration in the USA works and always has.ILLEGAL imigration does not work because it is illegal and people are breaking the law.No rights of any kind for the illegal aliens and no rights to their illegal children who are born here during the commision of crime of illegal entry.

    June 11, 2012 at 2:11 pm | Reply
  8. Wiley Thurster

    From the article: "Today, many Americans see immigrants as a danger to that dream." WRONG. It's ILLEGAL immigrants that many Americans see as the danger to that dream. This is the way Libs try to avoid the real issue. Oh the poor immigrants. Oh our country was founded by immigrants. Oh, we're really all immigrants aren't we? Can't we all just get along? Si? The problem is condoning a crime, under the guise of compassion, that is doing irreparable damage to our nation. Libs just can't seem to grasp that fact.

    June 11, 2012 at 2:12 pm | Reply
    • S.T.

      Yes- it does seem that the media and such keep twisting words and missing the point. We have issues with the ILLEGAL immigrants- not LEGAL immigrants or refugees.

      June 11, 2012 at 2:23 pm | Reply
  9. PGK

    The cultural aspect of assimilation is beginning to fail in the U.S. Fewer and fewer recent immigrants are learning English, people are forming their own sub-communities by language, and the last three decennial censuses report for the first time native-born Americans who don't speak English. There are also some dysfunctional cultural traditions that are being brought here such as honor killings, genital mutilation, and child slavery which were tolerated in the old country, but are not legal in the U.S.

    June 11, 2012 at 2:14 pm | Reply
  10. Ezra

    Hey, it would make a great video game! Capture or kill the illiegal immigrants invading our borders.

    June 11, 2012 at 2:15 pm | Reply
    • Foghorn Leghorn

      My game would be better.
      Shoot all the trolls.

      June 11, 2012 at 4:45 pm | Reply
  11. LucyRicardo

    Zakaria, you are a shining example of what many Americans despise . . . an immigrant who comes here and tries to "fix" our country to suit their needs or likes. Mind your own damn business and go back to India and fix that. We don't need arrogant people like you.

    June 11, 2012 at 2:15 pm | Reply
  12. GK in WA

    America does not have an immigration problem, America has an ILLEGAL immigration problem. There is a huge distinction between the two that the author does not seem to acknowledge.

    June 11, 2012 at 2:16 pm | Reply
    • LucyRicardo

      This country is giving away the inheritance of your sons, daughters and grandchildren for generations to come. Time to stop it all. Legal or illegal, we're at saturation levels when Americans are competing with immigrants for places in colleges and grad schools, jobs, housing, etc. No other country does that. Time for a wake up call.

      June 11, 2012 at 2:23 pm | Reply
  13. freebird1776

    Fareed – Once again your bias has skewed your view. Americans generally don't have issues with immigrants. We have problems with ILLEGAL immigrants. Thanks for pointing out that the overwhelming majority of the country came from somewhere else though. What would we do without your insight?

    June 11, 2012 at 2:16 pm | Reply
  14. TiredOfIllegals

    There is another article written grouping both ILLEGALS and LEGALS together and using the word 'immigrant". Seriosuly??? While immigration numbers need to be reduced, illegal immigration needs to be stopped 100%.

    June 11, 2012 at 2:17 pm | Reply
  15. Baldy

    To find a broken immigration in a country formed by immigrants, is ironical but true here.
    US needs to fix immigration, make stricter rules and checks at border and faster assimilation of skilled folks here.

    I purpose, a 30 day 2 point plan.

    1) 1st on the month : Ask for application from all immigrants who want to become citizens here.

    Run background checks for next 24 hrs ...........

    2) 15th tell them they will become citizens on 30th ( if the pass backgound checks) or leave the country ( if they don't clear back ground).

    on day 30 the number of illegals would be less than 1 million.

    June 11, 2012 at 2:17 pm | Reply
    • ES

      Lol. background checks by Homeland security and CIA ,while applying for citizenship, currently take anywhere between 6 months to 3-5 years, depending on the country of origin. If you an arab or a pakistani you could wait forever.

      June 11, 2012 at 2:26 pm | Reply
      • Foghorn Leghorn

        If you an arab or a pakistani you could wait forever.

        Works for me.

        June 11, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
  16. Aberker

    By the way New Zealand has an excellent immigration policy as well see:

    June 11, 2012 at 2:20 pm | Reply
  17. Raj

    Zakaria – go back to Pakistan you jihadist

    June 11, 2012 at 2:21 pm | Reply
    • Baldy

      Sorry to disappoint you, but he is Indian , just like you.

      June 11, 2012 at 2:27 pm | Reply
    • Foghorn Leghorn


      June 11, 2012 at 4:48 pm | Reply
  18. boarddog

    Can I go to the foreign countries mentioned in the article and receive financial aid like this?

    June 11, 2012 at 2:23 pm | Reply
  19. BOb

    Canada also has the most effective assimilation approach in that it is very open to allowing people to do whatever they way. If you want to wear a tuban, go ahead we will make an official one for our police. You want to cover your face, go ahead, no problem feel free to do so. With that, Canadian's welcome people into the daily lives of their society (as opposed to making them stay at home). These people wear their turbans and veils to the mall, to sporting events, to parks and so on. Pretty soon, they start to wonder 'why' they are wearing these things when everyone else looks so comfortable (particularly the younger generation) and soon...they change.

    Because Canada is so open minded, there is no 'counter force' to assimilation. No body can rant and rave about needing to defend their culture which is under attack.

    With that said, some aspects of culture, such as food, celebrations, etc are absorbed into Canadian life. Chinese New Year and Dragonboat festivals now involve a very diverse ethnic make up and are Canadian traditions.

    Canada does it right.

    June 11, 2012 at 2:27 pm | Reply
  20. CanadaONE

    Canada is not perfect but when it comes to Immigration and Cultural Diversity we are the BEST IN THE WORLD I am in a Masters program in University and half of our class is from five different countries – if I could show you a picture of the class the colour and culture mixture is FANTASTIC

    Suggestion – walk down YOUNG Street in Toronto and come back and tell us what your see GO CANADA GO

    Love Canada

    June 11, 2012 at 2:27 pm | Reply
    • Tom

      So, you are perfectly willing to accept all the uneducated Mexican, Central Americans and South Americans that have crossed into the USA then. I'd be glad to send them to you!

      June 11, 2012 at 3:08 pm | Reply
      • CanadaONE

        You must be terrified when they sit beside you – you likley have high blood preasure and will live an average of seven years less than most people

        HINT hug someone of a different race and see if you can help them – TRUST ME you live longer

        love Canada

        June 11, 2012 at 4:20 pm |
  21. 30 Day , 2 Point , Fix it all PLAN

    I purpose, a 30 day 2 point plan.

    1) 1st day of the month : Ask for applications from all immigrants who want to become citizens here.

    Run background checks for next 24 hrs ...........

    2) 15th tell them they will become citizens on 30th ( if the pass backgound checks) or leave the country ( if they don't clear back ground).

    on day 30, the number of illegals would be less than 1 million.

    June 11, 2012 at 2:30 pm | Reply
    • Foghorn Leghorn

      Who pays for them to leave ?

      June 11, 2012 at 4:55 pm | Reply
  22. NoTax

    Immigrants are different, there are smart and not , depend of colour

    June 11, 2012 at 2:34 pm | Reply
  23. RichWW2

    The problem with this article assumes that Americans are against all types of immigration. That is simply incorrect. Most are probably for and okay with legal immigration. Everyone is against ILLEGAL immigration. That is the difference that CNN fails to talk about in these awful articles.

    June 11, 2012 at 2:34 pm | Reply
  24. A Flock of Illegals

    And you ran ran back to your land

    June 11, 2012 at 2:35 pm | Reply
  25. Joe

    The difference between honest immigrants and illegal aliens has never been greater.

    June 11, 2012 at 2:36 pm | Reply
  26. ladyfon

    Fine all you illegals in the US move to Canada, they want you.

    June 11, 2012 at 2:37 pm | Reply

    Spanish population move US economy. They take care of your aging people; make your yards look nice; polish your toilets; dust your home, clean your sewer; build and paint your houses; all this kind of jobs a white or black american even in dreams never would do it. Sure, products are label in Spanish, and that's indication how a lot money Latinos spent everyday, they move US economy, they just don't hid their money under the mattress like many Americans. Of course Latinos are also entrepreneurs, they own restaurants, construction companies, etc. Anybody who is right in his mind knows that this is true. Of course, nobody is perfect and a few of this folks get some welfare, but in general Latino community love and work hard for this country.

    June 11, 2012 at 2:37 pm | Reply
    • Tom

      Americans are perfectly willing to do these jobs you mention, just not for minimum wages. You have to remember $4 and hour in Mexico is a ton of money – you can't live of it (well) here. Businesses see the potential for more profits by hiring illegal workers – they don't pay them as much, and they basically have no workers rights – what more could a construction form want. If you don't agre with what they want you to do they just fire you and hire another.
      What you don't mention in your statement is the hundreds of millions required to care for an uneducated population. Since employers don't offer illegals insurance, they also don't pay the medical bills when they occur – I do. Since parents refuse to learn English, papers must be sent home with kids in Spanish as well – that costs money – I pay. Actually, 70% of the entire ESL program is for students who were actually born in the USA – nah, that doesn't cost anything, but I have to pay for it.
      It would be nice if the population you speak of actually wanted to be American. Unfortunately, most want to be Mexican. And you can't be Mexican and live in America permanently – you have to become an American!

      June 11, 2012 at 3:03 pm | Reply
  28. FajitaBob

    This is whyC NNshould stick to the business of NEWS rather than opinion. When leaders of countries such as Germany, who have the results of the experiment in front of them, say their immigration policies are failed, clowns like Fareed say they are pandering to extremists:

    "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."

    This is nothing more than thinly veiled propaganda, intended only to advance one man's agenda. Whatever your opinion, there is no regard to fact here, just one man's opinion. And this article is not worthy of a real news producer. Perhaps Mr. Fareed should spend some time examining the statistics of these countires, if he wants his opinion to be worth reading.

    June 11, 2012 at 2:38 pm | Reply
    • Foghorn Leghorn

      Its only opinion, when you dont like the opinion.

      June 11, 2012 at 4:58 pm | Reply
  29. Chris

    I have always wanted to emmigrate to Canada. Sigh.... must be nice to live in a country that CARES about it's people instead of worshipping $$$/

    June 11, 2012 at 2:38 pm | Reply
  30. Tears

    Anybody else notice the pickpocket in that picture?

    June 11, 2012 at 2:43 pm | Reply
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