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September 1, 2019

Teaching Immigration

Immigration is a vital part of American history and growth. The founders of our country relocated from other nations seeking safety and better lives, and many groups have followed suit throughout the years. Immigration is a building block of our history and something that continues to enrich our country, and it’s important that all students be able to discuss this topic knowledgeably and confidently as they age.

However, teaching about immigration can be complicated. The news and entertainment worlds are replete with strong opinions about the subject, and many students may already have faulty or incomplete ideas about what an immigrant is or how it affects our country. In this article, we’ll look at the real facts behind immigration and how to share them with your students.

Why Do People Become Immigrants? 

To begin, it’s imperative all students know the definition of immigration. In today’s terms, an immigrant is a person who relocates permanently to another country seeking opportunity, help, or improved circumstances.

There’s no quick answer to the question of why people become immigrants because the path is different for everyone. The organization Justice for Immigrants, formed by Catholic bishops to mobilize people in support of immigration reform, outlined four reasons someone may immigrate:

  • Safety: Throughout the years, many immigrants have made their way to our country to escape persecution, war, or violence.
  • Economic factors: Many immigrants are spurred to make their move to be better able to provide for their families.
  • Environmental issues: This sort of immigration can be involuntary, also known as displacement. Natural disasters can prompt families to leave their home country, as can problems like crop failure that leads to food scarcity or pollution.
  • Social considerations: Many immigrants come to the United States for higher education opportunities or medical treatment that’s inaccessible in their home country.

Regardless of why an individual or family first came to the United States, immigrants have created the foundation of our country and continue to add to its diversity and growth.

Becoming an American Citizen

Students who were born in the United States might not understand the complex process that immigrants go through to become American citizens. Immigrants wishing to become U.S. citizens complete a process called naturalization. This voluntary process has many steps, including that immigrants must:

  • Have had a Permanent Resident Card for at least five years or at least three years if the spouse of a U.S. citizen.
  • Be at least 18 years old.
  • Read, write, and speak English.
  • Have good moral character.

Naturalization involves a 10-step process:

  1. Determining if citizenship already exists.
  2. Determining eligibility, including the guidelines listed above.
  3. Preparing an application for naturalization.
  4. Submitting the application for naturalization.
  5. Attending a biometrics appointment, which includes fingerprinting and photographing.
  6. Completing an interview with U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services.
  7. Receiving a decision about the application.
  8. Getting a notice to take the Oath of Allegiance.
  9. Taking the Oath of Allegiance at a naturalization ceremony.
  10. Understanding U.S. citizenship, and honoring and respecting the responsibilities of all citizens.

Some immigrants must take extra steps, such as learning English, to meet the requirements. Our ancestors most likely had different experiences of the process, but this is the general path to citizenship today. It’s not an easy process and takes many years and documents to complete.

What’s the Difference Between Immigrants and Other Types of Residents?

In the news, students may hear about many different types of people relocating to our country, including refugees and asylum seekers. Understanding these terms helps students frame their understanding of immigration and international issues. The International Rescue Committee offers the following descriptions of people leaving their country for another:

  • Refugee: A refugee has been forced to flee his or her home because of war, violence, or persecution. This often happens without warning.
  • Asylum seeker: An asylum seeker requests international protection from dangers in his or her home country but doesn’t have a legally determined claim to refugee status.
  • Migrant: A migrant moves for economic reasons, such as seasonal work.
  • Immigrant: An immigrant makes the conscious decision to leave his or her home country and moves to another country with the intention of settling there.

Knowing the difference between types of people moving to different countries helps students intelligently talk about immigration issues.

Teach Immigration in Your Classroom

Teaching immigration helps students become more sympathetic to the journeys of those coming to our country today, as well as our American ancestors. Here are a few activities to do with your class that can take your students on personal, creative journeys and expand their knowledge of the U.S.

Take a Citizenship Test

Can your students pass the citizenship test given to those immigrating to the United States? You can find a sample citizenship test for teachers here.

Use the test as a guide for your history and civics lessons, and have your students take the test before and after lessons to see how much they improve. They will likely be surprised by how difficult some of the questions on the test can be.

Build a Classroom Immigration Collage

This activity encourages students to explore their own families’ immigration stories. Some students may have several generations between them and their ancestors who moved to this country.

Have students to talk with their parents or grandparents about when the first members of their family came to the United States. Encourage thought-provoking questions, like:

  • Did they come by choice?
  • What circumstances caused them to leave their country of origin?
  • Where did they first go when coming the U.S.?

Some may have a harder time than others finding information. Reassure them that not all families know their immigration story fully, and that’s OK.

To celebrate the diversity of the class, have each student bring in a couple of representations of their heritage to include on a classroom immigration collage and share a bit of the story of their family’s immigration. Students will be amazed by the different stories their families have.

Write a Fictional Immigrant’s Story

After teaching students the process and history of immigration, task them with creating a fictional character and writing a narrative of the character’s move to the U.S. Depending on the students’ ages, you can assign them eras or geographical areas their characters will immigrate from.

This exercise encourages creativity, research and is a great way for students to empathize with the struggles and triumphs of immigrants. It also gives you insight into what parts of the process most interested your students.

Ask the students to share their stories with the class for a diverse look at various types of immigration and to showcase their creativity.


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