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 (849 Responses)
  1. Genold

    The best way to solve all immigration problems is to terminate all immigration into the United States. Soon America will be like the U.K where it is easier to find tribal members from obscure Middle Eastern regions, then to find Anglo Saxons.

    June 11, 2012 at 4:26 pm | Reply
    • Matthew Kilburn

      If Americans were actually having kids, that might be a possible course of action. As it currently is, however, immigration is really just being used as a stop-gap measure for the failure of native-born citizens to reproduce.

      June 11, 2012 at 4:28 pm | Reply
  2. Hot Carl

    Yes, let's take lessons from the rest of the world. Maybe we can learn something from Mexico?

    June 11, 2012 at 4:29 pm | Reply
    • HypeCat

      I agree there Hot Carl... I, being of hispanic descendence, have had the opportunity to be in Mexico a number of times, and I find it extremely ironic that the mexican government, and mexican immigrants criticize America's US/Mexico border policies when Mexico's southern border with Guatemala is almost guarded like a war zone, and immigrants crossing from South America into Mexico are treated horrifically, sometimes even shot and tortured... Goes to show you have each country is just looking out for its own protection... so sad

      August 8, 2012 at 12:34 pm | Reply
  3. Willy Brown

    Seeing how the rest of the world is turning into a 3rd world nations and melting down because of their lax boarders I see no reason to change but to enforce our current laws and open up Ellis Island operations. Yeah scream racist but as loose as our boarders have become and the sanctuary cities that have open up. Look at the rise in crime, diseases that we killed in this country called America that have returned not to mentioned the drain on the economy everytime an illegal calf a kid here.

    June 11, 2012 at 4:31 pm | Reply
  4. 21 Wolves

    Why not continue calling it a democracy for the next 200 years as we brainwash everyone moving our way toward communism. What's the difference? ....whether you know or not... ...find out now the benefits of communism and learn to accept them that way when we are at that turning point, you won't be so bad off behind the wall. The wall will rise from underground and surround the USA at a press of a button. They are already working on it just south of Victoria, Canada to not catch USA citizens off guard. Enjoy what is left for what there is. What a shame.

    June 11, 2012 at 4:31 pm | Reply
  5. adrifter

    Canada does not have the "cache" that the United States does? What does that mean? A cache is defined as a hiding place, or a place to store food or supplies, or computer memory. I think Canada has all that. I think the writer should have used the word "cachet" – meaning prestige. I think Canada has that, too. Plus, Canadians know how to spell and how to use a dictionary. Better schools, I think. Doesn't that help with our cachet?

    June 11, 2012 at 4:32 pm | Reply
    • Nat

      Thanks for the laugh. Cachet and Canada. I believe part of the issue that the U.S. faces with illegal immigration is partly their own making. For years through the propaganda of movies and advertising they have tried to convince the world that they are the best country on earth. So the poor and untravelled of the world eat it up and try and do anything to get there.

      June 11, 2012 at 4:46 pm | Reply
  6. southernwonder

    so the e.u. nations can't agree on anything but they all want muslims out? zakrika thinks it is a reflection on paranoid europeans, but most of would think it is a reflection on the ever warring islam.

    June 11, 2012 at 4:41 pm | Reply
  7. Illegals arecriminals

    Here is a weird idea.ENFORCE the laws.
    If illegals come here illegally that is a crime and why should we believe the will magically obey our other laws.
    The excuse they break our laws to better THERE LIFE is not acceptable in a court of law for breaking any laws.
    Homeless people steal food to survive be will be jailed for that crime.What makes illegals ABOVE the laws of our country.We have legal immigrants here.My friend came here form Italy legally.Our biggest issue is with Latinos.They are the biggest group sneaking in to the us.There to stupid to learn English and we have to change signs,docs, audio messages for them.I do believe they are the dumbest group on the planet.

    June 11, 2012 at 4:43 pm | Reply
  8. illegals killedthese
    Jesus Manuel-Acosta
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    June 11, 2012 at 4:48 pm | Reply
  9. Sparky99

    The opening premise is wrong. They said "Today, many Americans see immigrants as a danger to that dream." That just is not true, most Americans do NOT have a problem with immigration, we have a problem with ILLEGAL IMMIGRATION/IMMIGRANTS. Show us how these other countries handle THAT issue.

    June 11, 2012 at 4:50 pm | Reply
  10. marg

    To Eddard's opinon: with those expectations that you feel would help immigrants gain status in AMERICA, would the government of your country role out that same kind of red carpet to grant an AMERICAN legalization status. MY HONEST OPINION: NO THEY WILL NOT. AMERICA NEEDS TO TIGHTEN UP THE BORDERS BY START SAYING, FEW TO ENTER. Once reason for entry is completed now EXIT. WHY ROB PETER TO GIVE PAUL WHEN PAUL WILL SPEND LESS AND SEND MOST.

    June 11, 2012 at 4:50 pm | Reply
  11. reader10

    Mr. Zakaria are you really that stupid.It is the illegals and Muslims that are the problem.They are the ones that want to change the laws and refuse to integrate.No problem if you come here legally and live by American law.
    Please leave the US if you dont like it.

    June 11, 2012 at 4:51 pm | Reply
  12. evil muslims

    @Oh really? Islam is evil and so is Mohammad. In fact Mohammad was a child molester and you worship him??? blow yourself up and do the world a favor.
    Sahih Muslim Book 008, Number 3310:
    'A'isha (Allah be pleased with her) reported: Allah's Apostle (may peace be upon him) married me when I was six years old, and I was admitted to his house when I was nine years old.
    Sahih Bukhari Volume 7, Book 62, Number 64
    Narrated 'Aisha:
    that the Prophet married her when she was six years old and he consummated his marriage when she was nine years old, and then she remained with him for nine years (i.e., till his death).

    June 11, 2012 at 4:53 pm | Reply
  13. daveinil

    In one way, Fathead, misses the forest for the trees in that he fails to consider the geography involved. What do Western Europe and the US have in common that Canada doesn't, porous borders with less developed nations. How many illegal immigrants enter Canada from the US compared to the number that enter the US from Mexico. It's pointless to compare US green cards and Canadian point system visas when the US borders are a sieve and our immigration policies are politically motivated.

    June 11, 2012 at 5:10 pm | Reply
  14. RVD


    June 11, 2012 at 5:33 pm | Reply

    US has a faulty immigration system. Combining legal and illegal immigration into one law will not work as they are two different issues. It is extremely difficult to get a green card legally even with PHD from top US university in STEM. We had to pay 12 K to a top immigration lawyer to get our green cards under the EB1 category (extraordinary) as EB2 has a wait for 7/8 ears for China and India. I have a tenure track faculty position and my hubby is a scientist but we could not get any stability ( in terms of buying a house, settling down) till we had a green card. At a point we thought we would go back to India where we were offered cushy academic jobs because we felt it was extremely unreasonable the amount of paperwork and lengthy process getting a green card takes even for very qualified people. If we leave whose loss would it be US or India ? Our phd tuition, health insurance and yearl stipend of 20k was paid by the us university.

    June 11, 2012 at 5:40 pm | Reply
  16. Interested Observer

    Sick of Zakaria ALWAYS trying to justify the existence of illegal immigrants in the country and why this country should welcome more and more folks. The US already legally admits more immigrants than any other country in the world. Zakaria, go back to where you came from and make IT better. We should only admit those that do not impose a burden on those of us already here and make the US strategically better.

    June 11, 2012 at 5:43 pm | Reply
  17. Simon Abela

    I wonder how one feels if you lose your great job after spending college money and get all kinds of certification to people that have entered this country illegally, Its not being lazy Mr Khan but I personally have built some wealth and priide, and wll not take certain jobs, Perhaps you take any job, that comes along but not everyone are like you.Oh and yes I do shop at Walmart.

    June 11, 2012 at 5:45 pm | Reply
    • Craig

      Get over yourself... you are not special.

      June 11, 2012 at 5:48 pm | Reply

      My idea is illegal immigrates mostly do not have any college degree and most probably will not replace you.

      June 11, 2012 at 5:51 pm | Reply
  18. Craig

    Why is it so important to maintain a status as I am German, American, French, or any other. The reality of it is that this should not matter and doesn't really bring any thing to the table. As a resident of this planet I don't care where you are from.. only that you respect me as I respect you.

    June 11, 2012 at 5:46 pm | Reply
  19. John

    Legal immigration, at the highest sustained level in our history, is no bargain. Most legal immigrants come on the basis of family connections to previous immigrants, not on the basis of skills. Legal immigrants, as shown by the research of Harvard economist George Borjas, are much more likely than U.S. natives to receive welfare. What is legal is not necessarily beneficial.

    June 11, 2012 at 5:52 pm | Reply

      Could you please site the study ? I have seen very few legal immigrants on welfare and am very curious about the findings of the study the sample the study was done on etc.

      June 11, 2012 at 5:56 pm | Reply
      • John

        Mass immigration serves two major interests, the radical left and the radical right. The left wants population replacement of Middle Americans who resist their "progressive" goals. It is much easier for them to manipulate impoverished people with no understanding of our country's heritage. On the right are business interests who want an endless stream of cheap labor to profit from and abuse. It's much better than paying decent wages to those pesky American workers who demand a decent living.

        The radical left and right may hate each other, but they both love endless mass immigration as a vehicle to further their evil agendas.

        June 11, 2012 at 7:40 pm |
  20. L2001

    As an English speaking ICU nurse, I cannot tell you how many times patients and their families have gotten irritated with my inability to speak fluent Spanish. The hospital offers a free language translation phone line, but they are still angry I don't speak Spanish. That would be equivalent to me going to Mexico and getting angry with the nurse not speaking English to me even though the hospital offers language translation services. I have taken 4 years of Spanish classes but learning to convert my entire professional vocabulary into another language is a monumental task. I don't mind informing the patient and/or family about the parasympatholytic and sympathomimetic properties of the bisquaternary ammonium compound, Pancuronium, but I think it's balderdash I should have to learn how to say this in another language. I spent 11 years working and paying my own way through college and these people want me to take time away from my personal life to learn to say it in their language...I don't think so.

    June 11, 2012 at 6:01 pm | Reply
    • YourNeighborhoodTeller

      I definitely relate to this. I work as a teller and LITERALLY 75% of the people that come in only want to speak Spanish. We have 2 tellers that speak Spanish with them but I cannot and so I constantly get "Why don't you know Spanish?" and "How are you supposed to help me if you don't speak Spanish?" And get this – ALL of our deposit slips, withdrawal slips, etc are in ENGLISH AND SPANISH and they still can't figure it out. If you move to a country then learn the language it's as simple as that. But DO NOT come to my bank and expect me to speak your language (and then criticize me) because you are too lazy to learn English.

      June 11, 2012 at 9:52 pm | Reply
  21. Atul Chaudhary

    Well Fareed, You forgot to mention very important information regarding Australia where Indian immigrants (specially students) are being killed on a regular basis. In Australia, every immigrant gets DOLE for each of the family member. Some of the middle easterners have expanded like anything so that they can get more DOLE. They are living in nice houses, driving nice cars without doing ANYTHING. Sooner or later Australian economy will be hit by this huge burden of supporting people on DOLE. Taxes in Australia are way too high. That's why they don't have enough jobs.

    I support legal immigration but it should be on the basis of what we need, families to reunite but illegal immigration has to be dealt with. I know that our system is way too SLOW. It has to be streamlined and there should be grounds of compassion but you can't come in here illegally and expect preferential treatment.

    June 11, 2012 at 6:03 pm | Reply
    • Andy in Oz

      Indians killed on a regular basis, oh that is a laugh.... if Australia was such a bad place why do so many people including people from India choose to come here and study and work and live?

      June 13, 2012 at 3:45 am | Reply
  22. Total non Sense

    The only danger of imigration is Islam. No muslim should allowed in America, all those allready here should be expulsed (no matter where they are born, a Muslim is a ENEMY)

    June 11, 2012 at 6:35 pm | Reply
  23. paistekid

    “Canada offers many of the same things that America does – a very high standard of living, the rule of law, peace, safety,” I moved out of Canada and to Southeast Asia because of this statement many years ago! If you do not understand why then obviously you've never travelled abroad!

    June 11, 2012 at 6:45 pm | Reply
  24. clemkadiddle

    It is time to DRASTICALLY cut back on immigration numbers. The United States resources are being exhausted as is the tax payers wallet. You pay for the population explosion wheter you realize it or not. It's in your property taxes, your utility bills, price of gasoline, groceries, etc. Call your Congressman and say enough is enough. Demand national soverignity on all levels geographic, socio, economic. I don't want to see mosques all over the country and hear arabic, spanish chinese at the grocery stores and malls. Sooner or later their numbers will be so great that they will be making the rules. Reject the NWO /Global Economy. Buy American, pull your money out of Wall Street, and don't hire any contractor that has illegals working for them. This is America, not Latin America, Central America, South America. Vote out your Congress person. It's time for change.

    June 11, 2012 at 6:50 pm | Reply
  25. clemkadiddle

    Wow, I though this article was written by ruben navarez,

    June 11, 2012 at 6:59 pm | Reply
  26. stiffinp

    I've grown up in a rural area all my life and while we are taught about Americas diversity, i've really never experienced it until recent years. Now after going through college (with a diversified student body) during the great recession and having met many foreign students, I embrace it. I also volunteered at Catholic Charities as part of a class to work with refugee kids and I enjoyed it so much I continue it today.

    June 11, 2012 at 7:05 pm | Reply
  27. Simon Abela

    Man this is not the way America Is I do not oppose legal immigration at all. But i aspect if our country calls us to do our duty and enlist we shouls all do it. Ia m tired of people protesting in the street with Mexican or other country flag. I fyou left your country and came to America at least respect yourself. I have no problem people speaking their own languages as long English is Official languaage and everyone understand it.
    What I have a problem is why our politcal leaders are all quite and hesitate to work together, I agree that America is falling down day by Day thanks to this Administration but If Hispanices are smart they will not fall for him, after alli i had to fire my gardener when i lost my job and decided to do the work myself. Go figure most of us rather work than sit at home.

    June 11, 2012 at 7:09 pm | Reply
  28. Zoe

    Canada has gotten it right, by a long shot. For example, the province of Quebec offer 5 years of free language classes. Both in French, and in English. The locations for these language classes is heavily strewn throughout the province – easily accessible to all recent immigrants who need/want it. The classes are consistently full, continuing the Quebec language mandate tradition.
    Now that's "getting it right"!

    June 11, 2012 at 7:09 pm | Reply
  29. Lola

    Most Americans are pro immigration not illegal immigration. The high numbers of illegal immigration and a country that doesn't enforce its own immigration laws is the biggest difference between the US and other countries. America's failure to properly address the illegal immigration issue has caused a huge push back from the American public(don't blame them at all). Until that issue is addressed properly, Americans will never be on board to expand legal immigration.

    June 11, 2012 at 7:30 pm | Reply
  30. Midwester

    Way to put the end of the article in proportion there CNN! You know the number of immigrants in the U.S. is by itself almost 2X the whole population of Australia, right?

    June 11, 2012 at 7:41 pm | Reply
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