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Immigrant History through Primary Sources

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Children recently arrived at a New York City public school from Hong Kong and Formosa with their teacher in a 1964 newspaper photo
Miss April Lou, teacher at PS 1, Manhattan, with six Chinese children, recent arrivals from Hong Kong and Formosa, who are holding up placards giving his or her Chinese name both in ideographs and in transliteration and the name to be entered upon the official school records. Fred Palumbo. World Telegram & Sun, New York. 1964. From the Library of Congress.


The Emerging America – Accessing Inquiry approach to making history and social studies accessible to all learners emphasizes the importance of showcasing the historical contributions of people with challenges that students can relate to. This includes the challenges of being an immigrant. 

Students engage when they encounter history that reflects THEIR experiences. Study of immigration and of immigrant communities can be a vital motivator for English Learners. Exciting and important immigration topics include: the contributions of new immigrants; ways that immigration has been both a dynamic force and a focus of intense public debate; and stories of the difficulties, tragedies, and triumphs of individuals and communities. Accessing Inquiry expands our study of immigration across the entire sweep of American history and incorporates the experiences of foreign language communities, many of which endure for generations beyond the first generation of immigration.  

Learning about the contributions of immigrants is essential for all Americans. Accessing Inquiry fully accepts that early European colonists were themselves immigrants to North America, seen as newcomers by indigenous people and their Native nations. We also recognize the difficult experiences of forced migrants, including enslaved people and those captured in war. We embrace other complex stories of immigration, such as native-born  citizens from U.S. overseas possessions and international adoptees. Some of the most consequential movements in American history, including the Great Migration of the 1920s to 1940s, have been from one region of the U.S. to another. Questions of identify, citizenship, and belonging weave throughout all these narratives. For further thoughts, see the essay Why Teach Immigration History? Exploring Language Communities of the U.S. 

Immigrant history is increasingly recognized as vital to a full understanding of U.S. history, including in the 2018 Massachusetts standards. See examples below of standards-aligned primary source-based lessons.


Primary Sources on Immigrant and Language-Learner History

Browse the many excellent accessible, teacher-written, primary source-based lessons on Immigration History in our Teaching Resources Library.

The Library of Congress offers an extensive archive on Immigration in the Teachers: Classroom Materials: Themed Resources section of its website. The primary source sets and lesson plans there offer rich historical material, and examples of lesson plans–including useful questions for investigation–that encourage students to connect to the immigrant stories of their own families, communities, and states. The Library of Congress Exhibitions and Presentations links hold still more resources, some particular to particular immigrant groups.


Crossover Themes of Immigrant History

State history standards and textbooks across the U.S. commonly emphasize a similar structure of topics in history. Even in states that do not yet make Immigrant History explicit, the following themes offer places where teachers can integrate key moments and concepts of Immigration & Immigrant History.

  • Geography and specific communities
  • Colonization and European immigration
  • Wars with local nations, forced migration and enslavement, slave trade
  • The Civil War Was Won by Immigrant Soldiers
  • Industrial Revolution
  • Eugenics (specifically focuses on immigration)
  • World War I and II
  • Korean War, Vietnam War, later wars
  • Economics, Labor


Other Selected Resources on Immigration History


Political cartoon shows Uncle Sam blocking immigrants with a wall labeled Literacy Test.
Model Lessons on Immigrant History

Lessons and primary sources.

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