American Immigration Past and Present: A Simulation Activity
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.
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:
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.
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.
H/SS Content Standards:
Historical and Social Science Analysis Skills Grades 9-12
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:
Key Words: immigration, policy, reform, refugee, alien
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:
Morrison, Joan and Zabusky, Charlotte Fox, American Mosaic: The Immigrant in the Words of Those Who Lived It (Pittsburgh:
University of Pittsburgh Press, 1993)Various writers explore the tensions experienced by those who are attempting to assimilate to American society, but whose roots are in another country.
Bear River High School
Nevada Joint Union High School District
Edited for On-line Use by David Finch