American Immigration Past and Present: A Simulation Activity

Historical Overview

Throughout its history, America has served as the destination point for a steady flow of immigrants. During the colonial era most migrants came from northern European countries. Their numbers declined with the onset of the Revolutionary War during the 1770s, but immigration later picked up strongly again during the 1840s and 1850s. New arrivals came from several European countries during this period, but most came from Ireland and Germany, where devastating crop failures forced many residents to leave their homelands. Many settled in New York City, where the population increased from 200,000 residents in 1830 to 515,000 in 1850. By 1860, New York was home to over one million residents. More than half of the city's population at that time were immigrants and their American-born children.

After the Civil War, America's growing industrial economy required the addition of many more workers, and this need was filled once again by immigrants arriving from Europe. Approximately 25 million arrived between 1866 and 1915. While earlier immigrants had come mainly from northern European countries such as England, Germany, and the Scandinavian countries, by the 1880s most new immigrants were arriving from southern and eastern European countries such as Italy, Poland and Russia. Like their Irish predecessors, most of these new arrivals were poor and uneducated. Many were peasants from rural regions who were being pushed out by Europe's industrial revolution.

With the U.S. entry into World War I in 1919, immigration declined dramatically, and remained low through the Depression era of the 1930s and the World War II years of the early 1940s. The number of new arrivals began to increase again during the late 1940s, and has risen steadily since that time.

Recent Trends:

Today's immigrants arrive from all parts of the world. The current phase of immigration history began in 1965, when strict quotas based on nationality were eliminated. In 1978, the United States government set a single annual world quota of 290,000, and this ceiling was raised again in 1990 to 700,000. During the 1990s, immigrants have arrived at a pace that at times has exceeded one million new arrivals per year, and have settled in all parts of the country.

Issues to Consider

Although immigration provides one of the most colorful chapters in our country's history, it has also brought a host of problems which have not been so easily resolved. For example, cultural differences and language barriers among different ethnic groups have frequently given rise to hostilities between them. Also, immigrants' inability to quickly assimilate themselves to the norms of mainstream American social life have often prevented them from realizing the economic advancement they sought when they left their homelands. Furthermore, today the nation's economy has reached a point of maturity, and avenues for rapid economic and territorial expansion have largely been closed. It is by no means clear that we can provide steady employment for the large number of immigrants who continue to arrive at our shores with the hope of attaining better lives for themselves.

For these reasons, it is essential that we examine current policies in order to assess whether they best serve the interests of both American citizens and of those immigrants who arrive with the belief that opportunities for a good life will be available here. At issue is the general question of whether we should continue our longstanding policy of openness, or "close the gates" in order to protect the existing levels of prosperity that most American citizens enjoy.

Specifically, we need to consider these difficult questions:

The Task

This activity will consist of three parts: a Commission hearing in which the class will attempt to arrive at an immigration policy; individual essays by each student; and, if time permits, individual or group projects based on some aspect of America's immigration heritage.

Here is a brief description of how the activity should progress:


Procedures and Resources for the Commission Hearing

For purposes of the hearing, each student will assume the role of a commission member, an individual immigrant, or a lobbyist. The commission will include five students. Ten students will take on the roles of individual immigrants from various countries. The other students will serve as lobbyists (four groups), arguing for one of the four immigration policies outlined below.

Student Research Strategies and Resources:

Students will first conduct research in order to prepare for the hearing. Resources can include your class text, other classroom books and resources, and information available on the world wide web. The three web sites listed below provide excellent summaries of the issues we are considering. You can explore these sites as part of your preparation for the hearing.

Students playing the roles of immigrants and lobbyists can choose from the four policy options described at the end of the U.S. Immigration Policy in an Unsettled World site. These options represent two extreme views on the immigration issue, and also two more moderate views. Once you have chosen which option you will support, the other information contained in these three sites should help you to develop your arguments. Feel free to modify or add more detail to the option you choose if you feel your argument warrants it.

Learning Advice

Perhaps the most important consideration to keep in mind while working through this activity is the relevance of past immigration patterns to our present-day circumstances. America has always been known as a nation that is open to immigrants. Though new immigrants have not always realized their dreams of a better life, many others have accomplished that and much more. Today, increasing numbers continue to arrive each year with the same dream. Can we accommodate them? Should we accommodate them? These questions should be considered from the point of view of the immigrants themselves, and also from the perspective of American citizens whose quality of life might be affected by immigration policies.

The success of the activity depends upon the contributions of all three groups. During the commission hearing, immigrant presentations should be based on personal background, accomplishments, and potential contributions as citizens. Lobbyists should carefully consider the assumptions that underlie their own policy option, and also those of their political opponents. In conducting the hearing, Commission members should follow the guidelines that are explained on Handout #1.

At the completion of the Commission hearing, all students should use Handout #2 as a guide for the final essay on the topic of "What should the present U.S. immigration policy be?"


The teacher will meet with your small groups periodically as you prepare for the hearing. Evaluation of the activity will be broken down as follows: preparation for the hearing (20%); contributions during the actual Commission hearing (40%); your final individual essay on immigration policy (40%).


Why are borders and immigration policies needed? What guiding principles have governed our past policies and which do you think are most important today? These questions press more and more upon our political system as the numbers of new immigrants continue to rise but our ability to accomodate and assimilate them comfortably becomes less certain. Should we maintain our traditional policy of openness to new migrants, or must we reevaluate this tradition in light of current circumstances? The activity described here will hopefully provide you with the knowledge to address these important issues.

Teacher Notes

Grade Level/Unit:

H/SS Content Standards:

11.2 Students analyze the relationship among the rise of industrialization, large scale rural to urban migration, and massive immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe, in terms of:
3.the effect of the Americanization movement
4.the effect of urban political machines and responses by immigrants and middle-class reformers

Historical and Social Science Analysis Skills Grades 9-12

Chronological and Spatial Thinking
3.students use a variety of maps and documents to interpret human movement, including major patterns of domestic and international migration; changing environmental preferences and settlement patterns; the frictions that develop between population groups; and thediffusion of ideas, technological innovations, and goods
Historical Interpretation
1.students show the connections, causal and otherwise, between particular historical events and larger social, economic and political trends and developments
2.students recognize the complexity of historical causes and effects, including the limitations on determining cause and effect
3.students interpret past events and issues within the context in which an event unfolded rather than solely in terms of present day norms and values
4.students understand the meaning, implication, and impact of historical events while recognizing that events could have taken other directions


Lesson length: 7 to 10 hours, plus homework readings and research assignments.

Reading level: medium to high

Purpose of Lesson: In addition to teaching students the main historical facts of America's immigration heritage and the important issues that confront us today, this activity is designed to help students exercise the following skills:

Discussion Questions:

  1. Why did U.S. lawmakers not feel the need to begin restricting immigration until 1875?
  2. Why was the U.S. a magnet for immigrants in the 19th and early 20th centuries?
  3. What factors prompted Congress to pass laws restricting immigration?
  4. What are the main concerns in shaping an immigration policy?

Key Words: immigration, policy, reform, refugee, alien

Student product/performance:

  1. Students will review the web sites listed in the "Procedures and Resources" section.
  2. Students will give oral presentations to class and to the Commission.
  3. Students will write an original position paper (1 to 2 typed pages) presenting the strengths and weaknesses of the immigration policies they have developed.
  4. (Optional) Students will create a project that reflects a particular immigrant heritage (perhaps their own). Examples include: an oral interview, a video interview, a prepared food, a mobile, a collage.

Activity URLs: The web sites listed here provide an abundance of information on both the history of immigration and issues regarding current immigration policies. The first three are listed in the "Procedures and Resources" section of the activity. Teachers can refer students to the others as well, or use them in whatever way seems appropriate. Some of these might be helpful to students as they work on their individual projects.

Project Vote Smart; immigration links.
Offers general information to interested readers. The site is intended to help citizens inform themselves in order to vote intelligently on a variety of issues.

FAIR: The Federation for American Immigration Reform
This site focuses on the issue of whether or not we should limit immigration. It also provides a great deal of information on the history of U.S. immigration and on current issues regarding immigration.

Immigration Links: The U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act
This site provides access to the complete text of the latest U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act.

Voice of the Shuttle: Minority Resource Page
Offers many different links to sites that have minority resources.

Do It Yourself Immigration Packet
Offers "how to" advice on a variety of immigration related matters.

Suggestions for Additional Reading:

Borjas, George, Friends or Strangers: The Impact of Immigrants on the U.S. Economy (New York: Basic Books, 1990)
Discusses the economic impacts of immigration on American society. 
Brown, Wesley and Ling, Amy, eds., Visions of America: Personal Narratives from the Promised Land (New York: Persea books, 1993)
Various writers explore the tensions experienced by those who are attempting to assimilate to American society, but whose roots are in another country.
Graham, Otis L. Jr., Rethinking the Purposes of Immigration Policy (Washington D.C.: The Center of Immigration Studies, 1991)
Argues from the perspective of those who advocate policies that favor restrictions on immigration.
Kennedy, John F., A Nation of Immigrants (New York: Harper & Row, 1964)
A classic work that covers immigration patterns and policies, emphasizing the contributions immigrants have made to American society.
Schlesinger, Arthur M. Jr., The Disuniting of America (New York: W.W. Norton, 1991)
Considers what it means to be an American, and examines ways in which the recent emphasis on ethnic awareness could possibly lead to the fragmentation of American culture.


Submitted by:
Lewis Sitzer
Bear River High School
Nevada Joint Union High School District
Edited for On-line Use by David Finch

Technical questions on the website to:
Last Revised: 03/22/06