Indentured Servitude and Immigration


This lesson is designed to help students:

  • Examine the correlation between indentured servitude in the early American colonies and undocumented immigration today;
  • Understand the push and pull factors for immigration in colonial times and in our current time period;
  • Explore this content through the parallel lives and choices of two fictional boys, and
  • Apply problem-solving and decision-making techniques, like debating and compromising.

Essential Questions: 

  • What are people willing to do to come to the United States?
  • Are the sacrifices people make coming to the United States worth it?  Why or why not?
  • Is indentured servitude alive and well in the 21st Century? Elaborate

Materials Needed: 


indenture |inˈden ch ərˈ|
(verb) to bind, as an apprentice

indentured servant |inˈden ch ər sərvənt|
(noun) a person who is bonded or contracted to work for another for a specified time, in exchange for learning a trade or for travel expenses (as to America)


  1. Individually, make a list of all the possible answers to the following question:  For what reasons do people come to the United States? Take several minutes to generate a list.  Record your answers on the board or on poster paper.  
  2. Then, with a partner, review your lists and explain your thinking on how you arrived at the answers. Afterward, combine and sort your lists into categories. Possible categories could be Economic Reasons, Political Reasons, Social Reasons, etc. Explore the following question: For what one reason—economic, political, social—do people immigrate to the United States?  Why?
  3. Form a group of four (one pair with another pair). Take turns sharing each other’s examples, and then discuss whether you think the reasons have varied over the course of American history or whether the reasons have generally stayed the same.
  4. Next, with the same group of four, read, Handout 1: Josiah—1620. After everyone in your group reads the handout, review and talk about the questions on the handout.
  5. Individually, list three to five reasons why Josiah should become an indentured servant and move to the New World. Then, list three to five reasons why Josiah should not become an indentured servant and move to the New World.
  6. Read Handout 3: Diego—2004. Previously you read about Josiah in the year 1620. Now, you’ll read about Diego in the year 2004. After everyone in your group reads the handout, review and talk about the questions on the handout. Then, as a class, discuss the questions:  How different is Diego’s life from Josiah’s?  How similar is it?
  7. Brainstorm a list of three to five reasons why Diego should “take the journey to the North.” Then brainstorm a list of three to five reasons why Diego should not “take the journey to the North.”
  8. In your groups of four, two read Handout 2: What Josiah Didn’t Know and answer the questions, and the other two read Handout 4: What Diego Didn’t Know and answer the questions. Then, share what you learned from the handout to your group, so everyone understands what you read.
  9. Discuss the following questions:
    • How similar is the difficulty of Josiah and Diego’s journey?
    • How similar is their experience upon reaching the United States?
    • Which traveler would have faced more adversity, Josiah or Diego?  Why?
  10. Debate which immigrant faced a more difficult situation in their home country, in the journey to America, and/or once they reached America. Form teams of six, with half supporting Diego and half supporting Josiah. Briefly meet with your side to share what you know, and develop a strategy for the debate. Get ready for the debate; but, instead of debating, switch sides and now become supporters of the other perspective/position. After your group shares what you already know of the other side’s perspective/position, work to reach an agreement through compromise. Write a brief summary of your outcome.

Write a 300-500 word reflection on how your views on immigration changed or didn’t change throughout the course of this lesson.  Use facts and examples you learned in the lesson to support your statements.

Extension Activity: 

Research Guest Worker Programs in the United States (Bracero Program) and in Europe where there are several such programs.  Generate questions to guide your research, think about what you want to know or what you find interesting about Guest Worker Programs. Throughout your research, document the process. Decide on what is the best way to exhibit or demonstrate what you learned, and share with your class your final product.