Immigration and Citizenship

The History of Immigration Law in the United States

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.

Founding Principles

Civic Virtue image

Civic Virtue

A set of actions and habits necessary for the safe, effective, and mutually beneficial participation in a society.

Due Process image

Due Process

The government must interact with all citizens according to the duly-enacted laws; applying these rules equally among all citizens.

Liberty image

Liberty

Except where authorized by citizens through the Constitution, the government does not have the authority to limit freedom.

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Rule of Law

Government and citizens all abide by the same laws regardless of political power. Those laws respect individual rights, are transparently enacted, are justly applied, and are stable.

Overview

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.

Objectives

  • Students will learn about the debates over immigration during the Founding era, and how Founders differed on the benefits and drawbacks of unrestricted immigration.
  • Students will understand the basic process of immigration into the country in the 1700s and 1800s and come to understand naturalization.
  • Students will understand the contested nature of the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment, and how it applies to ongoing immigration controversies in the 2000s.
  • Students will understand how strict immigration controls in the decades before and after 1900 favored certain ethnic and national groups over others.
  • Students will understand the nature of anti-immigrant backlash in the first half of the 1900s, and how it manifested itself in federal policy and on the home front in both World Wars.
  • Students will understand how immigration policy radically changed after World War II and learn more about the reasoning for this transformation.

Materials

  • 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

Key Terms

  • Naturalization
  • Naturalization Act of 1790
  • Fourteenth Amendment
  • Natural-born citizen
  • 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act
  • Immigration Act of 1917
  • Asiatic Barred Zone
  • Emergency Immigration Act of 1921
  • National Origins formula
  • Immigration Act of 1924
  • Internment camps
  • Korematsu v. U.S. (1944)
  • Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965

Background Homework40 minutes of homework, 20 minutes of classroom activities

  1. As homework for the night before the in-class lesson, distribute Handout A: Background Essay – The History of Immigration Law in the United States.
  2. Have students read the background essay and ask them to formulate their own written questions about the reading and the historical events it highlighted. They should also bring their written responses to the homework questions provided with the essay.
  3. In class, lead a student discussion. What were the major things they learned? You may use the questions asked in the lesson, as well as students’ own questions as a basis of the discussion.
  4. Have students turn in their homework responses.

Activities 90 minutes total

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.

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