Immigrants and Us


Almost every person in the U.S. has an immigration history, whether in the distant familial past or in more recent times. As a nation of immigrants, the United States has long struggled with how best to create unity within a pluralistic society, as typified in the motto on the Great Seal of the United States (and the dollar bill): E Pluribus Unum.

Exploring Our Immigrant Histories
Family Ties and Fabric Tales, first published by Teaching Tolerance in 2002, uses literature, art and family interviews to explore and celebrate students' immigration histories. Written for early grades classrooms, the lesson includes recommended adaptations for middle and upper grades.

In Mutual Learning Through Conversation, early grades educator Sally Ryan shares her classroom's exploration of naturalization — and what it means to be an "American" — through its dialogue with immigrant, and now citizen, Sam Khazai.

Assimilation and Pluralism
Some people believe the only way to create "one out of many" is through assimilation — immigrants and "minorities" should conform to already-established customs and attitudes. Others advocate for pluralism — the nation should expect ethnic, religious and cultural groups to exercise their individuality and help strengthen ever-evolving national customs and attitudes.

In other words, should immigrants become like "us," or should "We the People" always strive to broaden what it means to be "us"?

Help young students explore this tension using PBS Kids' free lesson, The Melting Pot, which asks students to think about how immigrants are changed by the United States and how the United States is changed by immigrants.

Introduce older students to the tension between assimilation and pluralism using these excerpts (PDF) from a 1919 letter by President Theodore Roosevelt and a 1997 speech by President William Jefferson Clinton.

Next, introduce students to the concept of a polarity map, a visual model that helps users examine "unsolvable problems" — challenges where a balance between two factors is the "solution," rather than an either/or "answer." Working in small groups, ask students to complete a polarity map (PDF) identifying ways assimilation and pluralism each strengthen and weaken our democracy. As a whole class, discuss:

  • What dangers does our nation face if it adopts a purely "assimilationist" approach? A purely "pluralist" approach?
  • What are strengths of pluralism we should try to maximize? What are the strengths of assimilation we should try to maximize?

As a closing activity, ask students to reflect verbally, in writing or through artwork on President Clinton's question: "What do you have to believe in and be willing to live by and be willing to stand up for in order to be an American?"

Tensions between newly arriving immigrants and native-born citizens sometimes gives rise to nativism — a school of thought that deems native-born Americans inherently superior and specific immigrant groups inferior, "unfit" for residence or citizenry in the United States.

Contemporary Nativism 
More recently, nativism has arisen along the U.S.-Mexico border, where American vigilante groups are taking increasingly hostile actions to keep undocumented Mexican immigrants out of the country. These "nativist groups" don't limit their focus to undocumented workers, however, nor are they present only in border states.

The nativist movement is fueled by a raging debate at all levels of government about what our national immigration policy should be, and the groups enjoy the support of sympathizers within mainstream media and the government. Further, in at least one instance in 2006, a federal agency, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), rounded up and detained Latinos in masse, regardless of their immigration status.

Use the following materials to introduce contemporary nativism to students:

:: Shoot, Shovel and Shut Up
:: Nativist Groups: A Listing
:: Nativism in the Mainstream
:: SPLC Sues Immigration Agency
:: Compassion, Realism Missing in Immigration Debate

As a class, discuss:

  • How do nativists portray immigrants? (Answers include: as socialists, communists and anarchists; as a health threat; as dysfunctional or contributing to the decline of cities; as criminals, drug traffickers, terrorists; as violent; as people who hate Americans; as part of a widespread conspiracy to bring an end to the United States.)
  • What emotions do these portrayals intend to evoke in the listener? (Answers will vary, but are likely to include "fear," "disgust" and "anger.")
  • What actions do nativists support in order to mediate these "threats"? (Answers include: violence; citizen "patrols" of the border; mass detention and deportation; intimidating workers; spying on Latinos; posting personal, identifying information about Latinos online.)
  • Contrast the nativist view of immigrants with the framework presented in Richard Cohen's essay, "Compassion, Realism Missing in Immigration Debate." How does he portray immigrants? What emotions does he try to elicit from the reader? What actions does he advocate?

To close the activity, ask students to reflect on Cohen's assertion that "We must ensure that immigrants, regardless of their status, are … are not subjected to violence and hate. We must stand for justice and tolerance … . Whether we can muster the courage and wisdom to do this will be a true test of the American spirit."

Ask students to write letters describing what "American spirit" means to them and identifying ways our nation might live up to that spirit in the face of rising nativism.

Build on this lesson using Mexican American Labor in the United States, a mini-unit by Christine Sleeter and Carl Grant exploring policies and attitudes about Mexican and Mexican American laborers in the United States, and The Line Between Us: Teaching about the Border and Mexican Immigration, ($16.95, from Rethinking Schools.)