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. F U CNN

    CNN = no reason bias, load of it..and Zakaria is an iddiot

    June 11, 2012 at 2:47 pm | Reply
  2. Mark

    I watched the show last night. It was good, but Mr.Zakaria glossed over
    Canada's cherry picking the best and brightest, and the need for assimilation.
    Maintaining diversity is what's killing this country. The immigrants of the
    early 20th century understood the need to assimilate, the current crop
    dismisses it. Nothing wrong with keeping your culture in your home or
    immediate neighborhood, but when you venture out beyond that enclave
    you should be American first... speak English in public. The countries
    that have everyone relatively on the same page have the least problems.
    There's too many lumps in today's melting pot. That may be good for
    pudding or gravy, but not a country.

    Also, the justification of low-wage, marginal, part-time, seasonal jobs is
    an elitist stance. Take the plunge and require a living wage, or don't
    offer the position. It will be painful at first, but shake itself out. Think
    long-term first for a change.

    June 11, 2012 at 2:48 pm | Reply
  3. WDinDallas

    Will someone take this Indian back to Mumbia

    June 11, 2012 at 2:50 pm | Reply
    • billmosby

      It's "Mumbai". I agree, but let's get the spelling right, shall we, lol.

      June 11, 2012 at 3:07 pm | Reply
  4. TodaysImmigrantsAreBAd

    They come here because we have a great country then the want to bring the trash from the countries they have just left. GET REA>

    June 11, 2012 at 2:51 pm | Reply
  5. Tom

    I don't have a single issue about people wanting to immigrate to the United States. I do however have an issue about having to accept all the people who are immigrating illegally and basically living off teh system. I do have a hard time paying for people to live here that don't legally belong here. I don't think any American has an issue with legal immigrants, but the illegal ones are not welcome anymore!
    Having said that, I'll save you the comments, since I have such a view I must be racist! NOT!

    June 11, 2012 at 2:52 pm | Reply
  6. charlie

    Funny how 1 immigrant Mayor in Calgary thinks he can speak for all Canadians. I attended my daughters` graduation from university this past weekend and I was disgusted by the ignorance and pushiness of all the immigrants at the ceremony. It is time that if we are going to let more in then it is time for them to act like Canadians and not make us accept the ways of their country. If they don`t like our rules because they do not coincide with their religious beliefs then move back home and take some of your relatives with you. Welcome to Canada. You are now a Canadian, act like one.

    June 11, 2012 at 2:55 pm | Reply
    • agincourt98

      Oh Charlie, don't know whether to laugh or cry. The Mayor of Calgay is not saying that at all. I know plenty of rude people who are WASPs, but nice try. It ranks right up there with the person complaining that Korean Canadians are using an umbrella while golfing.....

      June 11, 2012 at 3:55 pm | Reply
  7. Doug

    Kind of misses the point (once again) – We are concerned about the Illegal Immigration

    Oh course it sounds better if you say – "Oh all those bigots are against immigration" – but actually its the legal thing that bothers us.....

    June 11, 2012 at 2:58 pm | Reply
  8. forgottenlord

    Earlier this year, Canada took an additional step of saying that it would reduce the number of immigrants brought in each year that are parents or older of existing residents/citizens, replaced it with triple the number of long-term visas for family members of existing residents/citizens and shifted all of those immigration slots over to economic slots. We're also constantly trying to find ways to improve our ability to get talented immigrants into positions suited to their skills rather than cab drivers (the number of doctors working as cab drivers...). Hilariously, our Engineering bodies have figured out that the best way to determine whether you're proficient as an Engineer is for you to take the American Engineer's exam (there's no Canadian equivalent because our training system is different)

    June 11, 2012 at 3:00 pm | Reply
    • agincourt98

      Thank you, thank you. Our system in Canada may not be perfect but at least is somewhat logical and the government is actively trying to improve it.

      It amazes me how many people don't understand, and won't understand, the basics of immigration economics.

      June 11, 2012 at 3:58 pm | Reply
  9. Henry

    Who's telling liberals that Americans don't like immigrants? Americans don't like illegal immigrants. Americans love immigrants, we've built this country on thier backbone. This article is FOOLISH!

    June 11, 2012 at 3:02 pm | Reply
    • Cunning Stunts

      If it dont work, its a liberals fault.
      Jesus was a liberal.
      This country was founded by liberals.
      Today, liberal is a dirty word.
      Why ?
      Because Republicans said so.

      June 11, 2012 at 5:07 pm | Reply
  10. libdumb

    The bottom line is who is going to pay for what the illegal immigrant needs to survive in our society that they can't provide for themselves? Obviously the Taxpayer. What is the limit on those resources?

    June 11, 2012 at 3:04 pm | Reply
    • flip

      Press 1 to find out.
      PS If you dont speak espanol, then your tough out of luck.

      June 11, 2012 at 3:08 pm | Reply
  11. billmosby

    At some point the world as a whole will have to learn to live with a static, or possibly even declining, population. Why not start on that now? Depending on an ever-increasing supply of non-old people is a losing game in the long run. It's also not fair to shelve older people as a group when many of them want to continue being productive and dare I say even innovative.

    June 11, 2012 at 3:05 pm | Reply
  12. DJR

    The base of Americans are saying NO. Thats, N. O. more. If politicians and labor leaders want immigration for their self serving agenda they first need to drastically improve the conditions and lives of the existing residents of the USA. Like all things we are aware of today there are people who depend on immigration to make money, have a job, and too exploit. Countries who are fighting against immigration were encouraged to open up to immigration by the USA in the first place. My feeling is it is time for a 5 year moratorium on no immigration, none allowed at all. We have millions of HS grads who are the labor force, and 0 jobs for them. That is the perception! NO immigration, none!

    June 11, 2012 at 3:06 pm | Reply
  13. flip

    The first thing we can do is STOP catering to just one group and start putting this recording on all business phones: "If you do not understand english, then we suggest you learn; unless of cause you think that you are so special that every store and every business should speak your language. In that case we suggest returning to the country of your origin until you can at least sound like you really want to be an American.

    June 11, 2012 at 3:07 pm | Reply
  14. Barry

    Illegal immigrants. Next week's new Democrats.

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

      Illegal immigrants cant vote.
      Nice try..................MORON.

      June 11, 2012 at 5:10 pm | Reply
  15. J856

    I don't think any nation can teach us how to handle immigration. The US has been handling immigrants for more than 200 years. What's the problem? Someone comes to the U.S. legally, they get a job and they pay taxes. Like everyone else. Am I missing something here?

    June 11, 2012 at 3:08 pm | Reply
  16. Solo

    There isn't a "lesson" here to be learned, nor any good practices to follow from other countries. The U.S. is soft on illegals and continues to be committed to a lack of policy or enforcement. Our tax dollars are wasted on illegals attending schools, seeking housing and food programs, and expecting free healthcare and not gain any status to become legal. We make it easy for them to get everything for free and offer nothing in return. Other countries set deadlines and expect wages to be earned and reported. We don't in the U.S. – so, maybe Mr. Zakaria can address this ugly truth.

    June 11, 2012 at 3:10 pm | Reply
  17. mcan

    This article is VERY POORLY RESEARCHED. Canada is quite different from the US as it does not have an 'anchor baby law', which means as a foreigner, you can't just vacation in Canada pregnant, pop a kid out and poof...they are Canadian. That is a big no-no. The US needs to create a law prohibiting children of non-American parents citizenship. This will eliminate the cry baby stories of how the US separates families. Also, Canada doesn't have an unsecured boarder with Mexico, thus they don't have the illegal immigration issues that the US has and they can better control the quality of their immigrant workforce. In addition, Canada does try to bring in the best and the brightest to fill its employment gaps. The US doesn't need uneducated and illiterate workers (the US already does a good job of producing these types of people through our public eduation system). We need scientists, engineers and most importanat MEDICAL PROFESSIONALS.

    June 11, 2012 at 3:10 pm | Reply
    • flip


      June 11, 2012 at 3:14 pm | Reply
    • So True

      Actually, I had a family member who was born in Canada while their parents were visiting took her almost a decade to get her citizenship straightened out...she was a Canadian citizen in both the U.S. & Canada's eyes...

      June 11, 2012 at 3:33 pm | Reply
      • Everett Mack

        There is more to your story than your letting on then, because children of U.S. citizens born overseas are still U.S. citizens.

        June 11, 2012 at 3:49 pm |
    • Fed Up

      We need people who can spell, too.

      June 11, 2012 at 3:45 pm | Reply
  18. Leonardo

    In the states I had student visa and I was never able to become resident even holding an University Degree! Today I live in Edmonton, Canada, working for a multinational company, I am permanent resident and I am so happy to contribute with my taxes to a society so inclusive and open! I love Canada !

    June 11, 2012 at 3:11 pm | Reply
  19. Steve

    Interesting read, but I don't think its very a practical approach to look at other countries' policies to shape ours. The U.S. has a unique situation when it comes to immigration. I doubt Canada would have the same policies if it was located directly next to Mexico. The immigration problem in America is not how and who we let in legally. It is how we enforce the laws broken by those who have come here illegally. I would like to see a serious article written about this.

    June 11, 2012 at 3:11 pm | Reply
  20. Al

    I like Canada's immigration policy, but if the US puts any standards other than being able to breath (or anything that keeps anybody from a certain region from being able to go to the US without any controls) for prospective immigrants to the US, some people with a lack a brain power will call it racist and against their civil rights. A good system that vets individuals prior to admitting them is the way to go (should be common sense).

    June 11, 2012 at 3:13 pm | Reply
  21. flip

    ?why isnt this article in espanol? this is a racist website; my espanol feelings are hurt. we are soooo exploited, by the white non hispanics, us white hispanics-especially those wanting to be neighborhood watch people-feel so demean by this. ?where do I press 2 so I can read this in espanol?

    June 11, 2012 at 3:13 pm | Reply
  22. csrt4

    I have no problem with LEGAL immigrants. THAT IS NOT THE ISSUE, as you are trying to state that the majority of people in the US are against ALL immigrants. WRONG!!! You should have made the point clearer in your article that these other countries that have high-rates of imigrants are actually LEGAL immigrants. Ones that pay taxes and other dues that natural citizens pay. ILLEGAL immigrants are just that... ILLEGAL! How do ILLEGAL immigrants stack up in those country, oh wise one, Fareed? Make the comparison of ILLEGALS in those countries vs LEGALS! THEN and ONLY THEN will your story be accurate.
    Typical one-sided misleading liberal media reporter.

    June 11, 2012 at 3:15 pm | Reply
  23. Harvty

    No, CNN, Americans don't have a problem with legal immigration; it's illegal immigration. When benefits and resources are given to illegals that have been paid for by the taxes of citizens, it's a bitter pill to swallow.

    June 11, 2012 at 3:16 pm | Reply
  24. Dean

    Ask France about immigration. France will be a muslim nation within 20 years. As for Germeny holding talks with muslim leaders about assimilating into the culture who is going to assimilate into what when German becomes a muslim nation.
    In general, immigration is fine but what we have a problem with is illegal immigration.
    As Chief Sitting Bull once said, "look out for those immigrants".

    June 11, 2012 at 3:17 pm | Reply
  25. Lorelord

    Pointless and off the debate article is pointless and off the debate. No one in America is saying we shouldnt allow people to immigrate. We are saying we dont want illegals here. I love how liberals try to equate the two. My wife is from Mexico and she is offended at the idea after allt he money we spent and all we went throught o get here here...the RIGHT WAY!

    June 11, 2012 at 3:17 pm | Reply
    • LinSea

      Amen! If I had gone through all of the effort to immigrate here legally and honestly, I think I would be absolutely furious at the people who cheat their way in.

      June 11, 2012 at 3:51 pm | Reply
    • Cunning Stunts

      I love how liberals try to equate the two.

      Funny, i am a liberal, and i dont equate the two.
      You must have a Republican agenda.
      Nice how you think you can speak for oher people.

      President Obama has deported more illegals than any other president in history.
      Job well done.

      June 11, 2012 at 5:23 pm | Reply
  26. csrt4

    Kill the ILLEGALS and let in LEGALS!!!!!!!!!

    June 11, 2012 at 3:18 pm | Reply

      I think your are sick; go to the golden bridge. tie a stone in your neck and precipitate yourself deep in the water.

      June 11, 2012 at 3:37 pm | Reply
  27. Steve

    Immigration is fine, as long as immigrants enter our country legally. As for the people coming here to work, I do believe Americans should be a first choice for a job, but in the occasion that the job is some specialized position and no Americans apply, or are not educated in a specific field, than legal immigrants are fine and welcome.

    June 11, 2012 at 3:21 pm | Reply
  28. Hans

    As usual Zakaria has missed the point. I have never talked to anyone that was anti-immigration. I talk to a lot of people that are anti-illegal immigration. There is a big difference. Zakaria seems to think everyone that is the latter is also the former.

    June 11, 2012 at 3:22 pm | Reply
  29. Guest

    I have never met an American (natural born or naturalized) who was against immigration. I have met many who were against illegal immigration. "many Americans see immigrants as a danger" is a distortion of the issues and sensationalism in the pursuit of making money nothing more.

    June 11, 2012 at 3:26 pm | Reply
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