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The History of Immigration Law in the United States

150 min

This lesson provides a background on the history of immigration policy in the United States, that is, the philosophical origins, legal debates, and legal history from the Founding of the nation to the late 1900s. Students will come to understand how American lawmakers viewed immigrants and the reasoning behind the evolving nature of immigration policy.

  • Handout A: Background Essay—The History of Immigration Law in the United States
  • Handout B-1: Debating Immigration in the Founding Era
  • Handout B-2: Comparing and Contrasting the Founders’ Views
  • Handout C: Cartoons on Immigration in the 1800s
  • Handout D: Transforming Immigration Policy in the 1900s

  • Handout A: Background Essay—The History of Immigration Law in the United States
  • Handout B-1: Debating Immigration in the Founding Era
  • Handout B-2: Comparing and Contrasting the Founders’ Views
  • Handout C: Cartoons on Immigration in the 1800s
  • Handout D: Transforming Immigration Policy in the 1900s

Activity I » 35 minutes

  1. Distribute Handout B-1: Debating Immigration in the Founding Era. Have students read and analyze the material independently and complete the critical thinking questions in preparation for a discussion. Students should read the passages as if the authors are engaging in a direct, back-and-forth debate with one another about the nature of immigration
  2. Distribute Handout B-2: Comparing and Contrasting the Founders’ Views. Ask the class to compare and contrast what Washington, Jefferson, and Hamilton wrote by identifying their ideas and arguments.
  3. On a separate sheet of paper, students should restate each passage in their own words. In small groups, students will share their summaries with one another.
  4. Using the Venn diagram, students should answer the following questions: where did the Founders disagree on immigration policy? Where did they find common ground? In what ways did their opinions change?
  5. Ask students to compare and contrast what the Founders said about immigration with what people say in immigration debates today.

Activity II » 30 minutes

  1. Distribute Handout C: Cartoons on Immigration in the 1800s. Have students analyze and discuss these images in small groups or individually, using the critical thinking questions as a basis for their discussion.
  2. Distribute blank paper and challenge students to create their own editorial cartoon on immigration, as if they were an editorial cartoonist in the 1880s. You might offer them the option of working in groups. If so, be sure there is at least one visual thinker in each group.
    • The cartoon should address the debates happening in the 1880s.
    • Students should explain the images they create using arguments from both sides during the time period.
  3. On another blank sheet of paper, ask students to express their own perspectives by drawing a cartoon commentary on the immigration debate in the present year. Challenge them to share their cartoon with the class and explain their perspective.

Activity III » 25 minutes

  1. Distribute Handout D: Transforming Immigration Policy in the 1900s. Have students read and analyze the passages using the attached critical reading questions as a basis for the discussion.
  2. Ask the class to compare and contrast the messages of Presidents Wilson, Coolidge, Truman, and Johnson. Then connect the learning loop by asking them to analyze how presidential positions have changed in some ways and remained the same in others. Students should also compare the views of more recent presidents with those at the Founding. Important background discussion topics may include Progressivism, the First and Second Red Scares, the Cold War, and President Johnson’s “Great Society” reform agenda.