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Refugees in American History

 Refugee resettlement is a major political issue in 2016, but new waves of refugees have sparked controversy as far back as the 1790s! In this eLesson, students will explore the sagas of two refugee groups in different centuries: the Irish and the Cubans.

By analyzing primary source materials, students will learn more about what drove these groups to America and how they adjusted to their new lives.  

Irish Refugees and the Great Hunger Resources


  1. As homework the night before or as an assignment in-class, distribute the article “Great Famine.” Have students respond to these questions in writing, or discuss them in groups.
    • What was the cause of the famine in Ireland?
    • Why did poor Irish farmers tend to rely upon one crop for subsistence?
    • At the time, all of Ireland was a part of the United Kingdom, and the Irish had little political power. How did the British government in London respond to the famine?
    • How did the famine alter the division of property in Ireland and how did this contribute to the decision of many Irish to leave the country?
  2. Using your school’s computer resources or by distributing paper copies, have students read the primary sources “Hungers, Cold, Disease, and Deaths,” as well as “The Distress.”
    • Have students address this question with a partner: Based upon these newspaper reports, what were conditions like in Ireland during the famine?
  3. Using the school’s computer resources or by distributing paper copies, have students read William Dunne’s letter to his nephew in the United States.
    • You will notice that the modern conventions of writing are missing in this letter. You may choose to have students practice their editing and grammar skills by correcting the letter’s spelling, punctuation, and construction.
    • Have students answer these questions in a group discussion:
      • How does Dunne describe conditions in Belfast, a large city?
      • Where are people emigrating? In what condition are they in when they leave?
      • Describe the difficulties of communication in this time period. How do messages from Ireland get to the United States?
  4. Working in small groups or individually, instruct students to write their own reply to Dunne’s letter. Students should imagine they are Dunne’s nephew, John, who lives in Philadelphia in 1846. Their letter should consider the following questions.
    • What family news do they have for their uncle?
    • How do they like life in the United States?
    • How is the U.S. different from Ireland in terms of its political institutions and culture?
    • How are the economic opportunities different? Are opportunities better in America?
    • Should their uncle come to America or stay in Ireland? Where should their uncle settle and why? Where are there concentrations of Irish immigrants?

Cuban Refugees since 1959 Resources


  1. Begin the lesson by providing an overview of the Cold War and the global struggle between the United States and its allies against the Soviet Union and its communist allies. Be sure to explain that the United States and its allies worked to convert other countries into free-market liberal democracies, while the Soviet Union tried to turn them into communist regimes. Provide an overview of the civil war in Cuba in the 1950s which resulted in Fidel Castro taking power and implementing communism. Many Cubans never supported Castro and communism, while others turned against communism once it was implemented.
  2. Either in class or as a homework assignment the night before, have students read the PBS article “Cuban Exiles in America.” As a writing assignment as part of the previous night’s homework, or as reading discussion in-class, ask students to respond to the following questions:
    • What is communism and what are its central components? In a communist state, how is the government organized, and who selects its members? How is a communist economy organized?
    • What is life like in a communist state? What rights do individuals have? What examples can they provide?
    • What was (and still is) life like in Cuba under communist government?
    • Why have Cubans risked their lives to come to the United States? How have their reasons changed over the years?
    • Who is Fidel Castro, and what role did he play in Cuban life?
    • How many waves of Cuban refugees have arrived in the U.S. and during what years did they arrive?
    • When Cubans resettled in Miami, what challenges did they face? How were they able to “start over” and regain prosperity?
  3. Distribute the primary source Resettlement Recap. Provide up to ten minutes for students to read the document.
    • Provide context for the document by explaining that most Cuban refugees came to Florida on improvised watercraft, and that many perished from starvation, heatstroke, dehydration, and drowning. Most did not have navigational aids or instruments, and many watercraft had no motors.
    • Have students describe the experience of Mr. Mayans. Why did he and fellow passengers flee Cuba? What happened to his fellow passengers?
    • Have students explain, based upon the context of the newsletter, what was the Cuban Refugee Assistance Program, and how did it assist refugees?
  4. Distribute the primary source “Joaquin Miranda’s Letter to the Cuban Refugee Assistance Program.” Give students 5 minutes to read and answer these questions:
    • Based upon the context of the letter, who is Miranda and why is he writing to the CRA?
    • According to Miranda, why did he leave Cuba?
    • Does Miranda like the United States? If so, what reasons does he provide?
  5. Divide students into small groups or permit them to work individually. Have students write a one-page response to Joaquin Miranda’s letter through the perspective of someone working at the CRA.
    • Their letter should be formal and should include a date, their name and address, the recipient’s name and address, and formal sentence and paragraph structure.
    • Students may choose to explain why they support Cuban refugees, may offer words of encouragement, or may provide an update to Mr. Miranda about affairs in Cuba; students have a wide range of possible responses.
  6. In these same groups or individually, students should imagine that they are aid workers in the CRA in 1961. They must create and design a leaflet to be airdropped in Cuba. The purpose of the leaflet is to encourage Cubans to flee across the sea to safety in Florida.
    • The leaflet should consider the following challenges:
      • Why should Cubans flee Cuba?
      • What has Castro and the communist government done to its own people?
      • How should the leaflet communicate to Cubans of different classes? What issues would be most important to a Cuban who was wealthy before the communist takeover? What would be most important to a Cuban who had always been a farm laborer, etc.?
      • Why is the United States a better choice for Cubans? What opportunities can it provide? What are the political and social values that make it more promising than communist Cuba?
      • What is the best and safest way to get to Florida?
      • Once in Florida, who should refugees contact to gain assistance? Where can refugees find more Cuban-Americans like themselves?