Immigration: Why Come to the United States?

In this activity, I will introduce our unit on Immigration. Our curriculum focuses mainly on the reasons for the increase of immigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but the concept is also brought up again later in the year as we talk about societal changes after World War II. With this introductory activity, students will use primary sources to guide them in discovering why immigrants came to the U.S. in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The first source is the hook, in which students will use song lyrics to brainstorm reasons for immigration. The second source is an interview with an immigrant of the early 20th century. The third source is a cartoon which compares and contrasts “here” (European country) to “there” (U.S.). Using 3 different categories of primary sources allows students of varying abilities to feel comfortable participating, which is especially important for English Language Learners or Special Education students.

Historical Background

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, millions of immigrants were coming to the United States. The majority of these immigrants came from eastern and western Europe. Immigration increased during this time period for several reasons. One reason was the hope for a better life, which included economic opportunities and an escape from oppressive governments. Another reason was for the adventure. A final reason includes religious freedom, especially for the Jewish people who were facing religious persecution in Russia.

When teaching students about the reasons for immigration during this time period, we use the acronym HEAR to help them remember Hope, Economic opportunities and Escape political problems, Adventure, and Religious freedom. With this primary source activity, students will analyze various sources that depict these reasons by using historical thinking skills like sourcing, close reading, contextualizing, and corroborating.

Lesson Objective

What were the reasons for immigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries?



  1. First, Neil Diamond’s song “America” will be used as the hook to attract students’ attention. As students listen to the song and read the lyrics, they will brainstorm reasons why immigrants come to the United States using key words from the song. We will discuss their brainstorming ideas as a whole class.
  2. After the warm-up, the first primary source (song) will be analyzed as a group. After listening to the song and reading through the lyrics, the class will create a list of reasons immigrants came to the U.S. (as stated in the song).
  3. Next, Students will work with a partner or small group to analyze the second and third primary sources (interview and political cartoon, respectively).
  4. Each student will complete a primary source analysis handout, with historical thinking questions that correspond to each source. Analysis questions include: What is the topic of this source? What words do you notice? Who are the people in the document? What is the overall message of this source? Who is the author of the source? What type of source is this? What do you think the author’s point of view on the subject is? When was the source written? When do you think the events in this source took place? Why do you think the author wrote this?
  5. Once this part of the activity is complete, teacher will lead the class in a whole group discussion about sources 2 and 3, adding to the list of reasons immigrants came to the U.S.


To conclude this lesson, students will be asked to do two things. The first is to explain in writing how the primary sources were similar (corroboration). The second is to respond to the following through writing: Using information from the primary sources, explain the reasons for immigration in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The teacher will walk around the room, formatively assessing students understanding of the question and the material presented through their writing.


Koehler, Arne, Linda Pollard, and Iris Gerhardt. “Neil Diamond Lyrics Page.” (Aug. 15, 2012).

Saverino, Joan. “Rosa Bolognese DaDamio.” Historical Society of Pennsylvania. (Aug. 15, 2012).

Leech, John. “Here and There; Or, Emigration a Remedy.” Illustration. Punch, 1848. From Punch Cartoons Online Catalog. (accessed October 2, 2012).

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