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Immigration Photo Credit: Clipart.com


To explore the effects of immigration on the immigrants and on society as a whole.


This lesson is part of a group of lessons that focus on the social, behavioral, and economic sciences. For more lessons and activities that take a closer look at the social, behavioral, and economic sciences, be sure to check out the SBE Project page.

In this lesson, students will explore some of the effects that immigration in the United States has had on immigrants and American society as a whole. They will be given opportunities to understand the complex issues of the immigrant experience, both past and present.

It is important for students at these grade levels to see more fully that, while human beings live in groups and voluntarily cooperate and compete with one another, they often end up in conflict and spend much of their time negotiating differences—either peacefully, heatedly, or violently. Understanding the nature of social conflict and ways of moderating it can help students learn how to deal thoughtfully and constructively with conflict in their own lives. Such understanding also is important for confronting community, religious, international, interracial, and intercultural conflict. School provides opportunities for students to obtain experience in resolving conflict in positive ways. (Benchmarks for Science Literacy, p. 171.)

History provides endless examples of conflict, its causes, and its consequences. In this lesson, students will examine this fact in the context of immigration experiences in U.S. history and relate them to more current developments. Students also will come to recognize how all societies have multilevel systems for regulating conflict and how different interest groups compete for influence and the power to make rules (and suppress or punish the ideas and aims of another group). Intergroup conflict, lawful or otherwise, does not necessarily end when one segment of society finally manages to effect a decision in its favor. The resisting groups may then launch efforts to reverse, modify, or circumvent the change, and so the conflict persists. Proposed social, economic, and political changes rarely, if ever, benefit every component of a social system equally, and so the groups—like immigrants or minorities—that see themselves as possible losers continually resist. (Science for All Americans, p. 100.)

In studying immigration, students will benefit from recognizing the close interdependence that exists between countries and cultures. For example, students will see in this lesson how past environmental catastrophes in other countries triggered floods of immigrants into the United States, often with serious social consequences. (Science for All Americans, pp. 102-104.) They also will have the chance to discuss consequences of immigrants’ and citizens’ ties to religious and ethnic groups that transcend national borders and go farther back in history than the country itself. Students will see that in the United States and in other nations, nonnative groups are and always have been important elements of society. (Benchmarks for Science Literacy, p. 175.)

In the immigration experiences presented in this lesson, students will see the role that governments play in attempting to engineer social change by means of policies, laws, incentives, or coercion and to manage external factors—like war and immigration—that shape how the society evolves. Sometimes these efforts work effectively and actually make it possible to avoid social conflict. At other times, they may precipitate conflict.

Another aspect of social change that students would benefit from understanding is that it happens sometimes in a flash, but more often slowly. What is sought in the context of immigration is an understanding of the internal and external factors that foster social change or influence its character. One area worth exploring is how immigrant groups previously isolated geographically or politically become ever more aware of different ways of thinking, living, and behaving, and sometimes of the existence of vastly different standards of living. Migrations and mass media lead not only to cultural mixing but also to the extinction of some cultures and the rapid evolution of others. (Benchmarks for Science Literacy, p. 161.)

Another major aim should be to help students to recognize that unless it is imposed by force, social change involves negotiation among different interests. Developing such an understanding takes time—time for students to encounter and examine social change in a variety of present and historical contexts. (Benchmarks for Science Literacy, p. 161.)

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To help students explore what they already know and feel about immigration, write these questions on the board:

  • What does it mean for the United States to be a “nation of immigrants”?
  • How is this situation different from that in other countries?

Now have students use their Exploring Immigration student esheet to access and read the primary source quotations about immigration at Immigration: Interpreting Primary Sources and Immigration on the Barack Obama White House website.

While they read the quotations, divide the chalkboard in half, labeling one side “Pro-Immigration” and the other side “Anti-Immigration.”

After they have finished reading, ask them in which category the author of each quotation belongs and the reasons each cites for and against immigration. Write their answers on the board.

  • Pro: President Cleveland: illiterate immigrants should be welcomed for the labor they offer the country and the opportunity it offers them; Emma Lazarus: our country should be a haven for the world’s homeless and hopeless; President Obama: recognize that legal immigrants are job creators and tax payers, while discouraging illegal immigration
  • Anti: New York Association for the Improvement of the Condition of the Poor: immigrants bring disease and social unrest; Theodore Roosevelt: immigrants spawn social conflict and confusion

Have student discuss their reactions to these ideas and share their own about the advantages and disadvantages of immigration. (Possible responses: Pro—creating cultural diversity and richness, promoting tolerance and cooperation; Con—introducing competition with Americans for jobs, inciting racism and ethnic tension)

Before proceeding, make sure students understand that, despite the fears of anti-immigrant groups, immigration has had largely positive consequences for American society both socially and economically. (You also might want to reinforce for them the difference between emigration (leaving a country) and immigration (entering a new country).)


Then instruct them to go to Why Did They Come?, on PBS’s Destination America site, and read the explanatory paragraph at the right for a brief summary of the factors that have motivated people to immigrate to this country.

Finally, have students visit Immigration. Instruct them to read the Introduction at the top of the page. After they have finished, have them discuss questions like these:

  • What are some aspects of our culture that have been influenced by immigrants? (They include art, clothing, holidays, language, literature, music, and sports.)
  • What can we gain from studying our country’s diversity? (We are able to identify and correct historical myths and misconceptions, combat bigotry and ethnocentrism, and understand our country’s complex social and cultural history.)
  • How can understanding America’s history in dealing with immigration and multicultural issues help other countries deal with their social and political problems? (It can provide a model for the many nations that are divided by ethnic antagonism or are experiencing increasing ethnic diversity.)

Next, divide the class into four groups and have them use their esheet to return to the Immigration site. Assign one link to each group:

Instruct students to take notes as they read their assigned text. Then, using their Immigration Close-Up student sheets, have them answer only the questions that pertain to the material they have read.

After they have finished, have each group present a summary of what they learned about their ethnic group—including the answers to the questions—to the entire class. Have the rest of the class fill in the answers to the other groups’ questions on their student sheets and participate in a class discussion about each immigrant experience. Possible answers to the questions can be found on the Immigration Close-Up teacher sheet.

Ask questions like these to help students identify important elements of the immigrant experience:

  • What factors contribute to emigration? (Things like poverty, natural disasters, and discrimination contribute to emigration.)
  • What types of work did early 20th-century immigrants usually do? (They did hard labor and other unskilled jobs.)
  • How were they treated? (They were often overworked, underpaid, and discriminated against.)
  • What specific types of discrimination did immigrants suffer? (They suffered religious, ethnic, economic, and political discrimination.)
  • How did various immigrant groups respond? (They maintained ethnic solidarity, became a political force, retained ties with and eventually returned to their home country.)


Ask students to search the newspapers and news magazines for reports of recent developments concerning immigration in the United States. Instruct them to examine the current situation in light of what they have learned about the effects of immigration in the early 20th century, comparing and contrasting both the immigrants’ experiences and the response of American citizens to the newcomers. Then have the class conduct a debate about how the situation has changed and what political and social measures should be taken to improve it.


You can extend the ideas in this lesson by leading students through these resources:

Students can learn more about immigration by visiting other section of the Digital History site, including:

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National Science Foundation
Some of the above content was created with support from the National Science Foundation. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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Lesson Details

Grades Themes Project 2061 Benchmarks National Science Standards