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What do Immigrants Look Like?

Created by:
Sharon Musher
Richard Stockton College of New Jersey

TAH Teachers
Greater Egg Harbor Regional School District

19th Century Immigration

Grade Level:
6 to 8


Although traditionally construed as a land of opportunity for new arrivals, the United States has always had an ambivalent attitude toward new immigrants. As the Jewish-American poet Emma Lazarus indicated in "The New Colossus," a poem written in 1883 and engraved on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty in 1903, new immigrants were simultaneously "tired," "poor," and "huddled masses yearning to breathe free: and also "wretched refuse," "homeless," and "tempest-tossed."

In this activity, students study photographs and political cartoons that illustrate the discomfort many native-born Americans felt toward newcomers at the turn of the last century. Through analyzing such works, students learn about the positive and negative images of immigrants at the time. They also consider how stereotypes are created, perpetuated, and resisted, and how they can be harmful.

A follow-up exercise uses a contemporary political cartoon and brief biographical statements written by two young recent immigrants to examine current attitudes toward immigrants and their responses to such sentiments.

Historical Context

During the late 1800s and early 1900s, the U.S. saw a dramatic rise in immigration. More than 9 million people arrived between 1865 and 1890; another 16 million came between 1890 and 1915. Rather than hailing from Ireland, England, Germany, and Scandinavia, as had the first major wave of immigrants in the early nineteenth century, this second wave of immigrants came primarily from southern and eastern Europe, especially Italy, Russia, and Austro-Hungary. Although such immigrants stimulated the country's economy and increased the ranks of the working class, they also threatened the employment opportunities of native-born members of the working class and introduced new political and religious ideologies to public discourse.

Nativism -- particularly anti-Irish and anti-Catholic sentiment -- was a central theme of U.S. history throughout the nineteenth century, but this new wave of migration heightened anti-immigrant sentiment. By the late nineteenth century, Congress responded to such sentiment by barring various types of immigrants, including prostitutes, convicted felons, the mentally retarded, those with contagious diseases, and all immigrants from China. White ethnic immigrants, however, faced few restrictions until 1921, when a temporary measure lowered migration from Europe from roughly 1 million immigrants per year prior to World War I to 357,000 in 1922. In 1924, Congress permanently limited European immigration to 150,000 per year with further restrictions based on national quotas that dramatically decreased the number of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe in particular. While the law established no limits on immigrants from the Western Hemisphere -- to appease large farmers in California who relied on season Mexican labor -- it barred the entire population of Asia, even though Japan had fought on the American side in World War I. The ban on Chinese immigration was not repealed until 1943. The national origins quotas established during the 1920s stayed in place until 1965, when the Hart Cellar Act encouraged a third wave of migration, primarily from Latin America, Asia, and Africa, which the U.S. is currently still experiencing today.

Artists and intellectuals have historically debated how new immigrants should be treated in the U.S. This exercise asks students to examine political cartoons and photographs created in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to understand a range of responses to the new migration.


immigration, stereotypes, citizenship, visual and oral sources

Goals and Objectives:

After completing this activity, students will be able to:

1. Understand how stereotypes are created, perpetuated, and resisted, and why they are harmful.

2. Analyze visual and oral primary sources.

3. Compare and contrast representations of immigrants in political cartoons and photographs.

4. Compare stereotypes toward diverse immigrants at the turn of the last century to those confronting today's immigrants.


STANDARD 6.4 (United States History) All students will demonstrate knowledge of United States and New Jersey history in order to understand life and events in the past and how they relate to the present and future.

STANDARD 6.A.5 (Social Studies) All students will examine current issues, events, or themes and relate them to past events.

STANDARD 6.A.8 (Social Studies) All students will compare and contrast competing interpretations of current and historical events.

Equipment, materials and other technology needed:

PowerPoint using materials in Appendix A

Photocopies of PowerPoint Slides 3-6

6 photocopies of Appendix C for group exercises (1 copy per group)

Photocopies of Appendices H and I

Photocopies of Appendix J for follow up activity

Photocopies of Appendices I-K for group work for follow up activity.

Details of Activity

PART 1: Attitudes toward New Immigrants: "The Mortar of Assimilation" (10 min.):

Tell the students that in this class they will examine political cartoons and photographs of immigrants from the late 19th and early 20th century to understand how native-born Americans perceived them.

First, the whole class will scan a range of photographs and political cartoons from the time (see PowerPoint created out of Appendix A, "What Do Immigrants Look Like?"), the class will then analyze one image together (C.J Taylor's "The Mortar of Assimilation" (1889) in slides 9 and 10 of the PowerPoint), finally, students will break up into groups and each group will discuss and present their image to the class.

Flip through the PowerPoint out of Appendix A, "What Do Immigrants Look Like?"

Stop at slide 9, C.J Taylor's "The Mortar of Assimilation" (1889). Since this slide excludes bibliographic information, teachers might want to refer to Appendix B for further information about the cartoon. Ask students to scan the image for important details. How does the image represent immigrants?

Flip to slide 10, which includes the basic biographical information, and ask how (or if) this information changes the way the students understand the cartoon. Ask the students to do the following:

Identify any conflicts or tensions in the image.

Guess the creator's intent or the central message of the image.

And hear the voices (imagine what the bloodthirsty Irishman would say to Lady Liberty if he could speak. How would she answer him, and how would the other immigrants respond).

Explain that this image illustrates the mixed attitudes toward new immigrants held by many native-born Americans at the turn of the last century. On the one hand, it shows a range of different people being mixed together as equals; On the other hand, it portrays Irish as bloodthirsty and unassimilable.

PART II: Background on Late 19th and Early 20th Century Migration and Anti-Immigrant Sentiment (5 min.)

Briefly clarify the origins of these mixed emotions, by explaining migration trends in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Describe what native-born Americans wanted from new immigrants (cheap labor) and what they feared about them (new religions, new political ideologies, disease, poverty, crime, violence, etc.).

PART 3: Attitudes toward New Immigrants: The Visual Evidence (10 min.):

Divide the class into 6 groups. Give each group the S.I.G.H.T. worksheet (Appendix C), the images on slides 3-6 from Appendix A, and the photographs with descriptions (Appendices H and I). If possible, laminate each image or put it in a plastic sleeve first. Explain that each group will be using the S.I.G.H.T. method to analyze its image. This is the method they just used to describe "The Mortar of Assimilation." Teachers might want to refer to the annotated images (Appendices D-I) to help student groups to analyze their political cartoons.

PART 4: Reporting Out (30 min.):

Ask a representative from each group to come to the front of the room and report their findings. Project the image they are discussing using the PowerPoint developed using Appendix A as they speak.

PART 5: Conclusion (5 min.):

Based on this lesson, have students consider how and why stereotypes are created, perpetuated, and resisted.

Practice and Reinforcement

What do immigrants look like today (1 class period and a homework assignment):

Ask students what they know about immigration today and attitudes toward immigrants. Explain that we are in the midst of a third wave of immigration (1965 to the present) and that anti-immigrant sentiment remains salient today. Show students a current anti-immigrant political cartoon. See Appendix J for an example. Ask students to analyze the image using the S.I.G.H.T. method (Appendix C).

Divide the class up into groups of three or six and assign each group the profile of a recent young immigrant (see Appendices K-M). There are three profiles in these appendices. You might give the same profile to two groups. Have the students read their assigned profile and think about how their recent immigrant might have responded to the political cartoon. Each group should report the results of their discussion to the class by pretending to be the new immigrant and describing their personal response to the cartoon. As a homework assignment, students could write a letter to the editor of the newspaper that printed the political cartoon responding to its imagery and message.


To see the entire selection of Lewis W. Hines's Ellis Island photographs, go to the George Eastman House Still Photograph Archive at http://www.geh.org/fm/lwhprints/htmlsrc/ellis-island_sld00001.html

For more information about turn-of-the-century immigration and migration consult the following:

Frederick Binder and David M. Reimers, All Nations Under Heaven: An Ethnic and Racial History of New York City (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995).

John Bodnar, The Transplanted: A History of Immigrants in Urban America (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1987).

Oscar Handlin, The Epic Story of the Great Migration that Made the American People, 2nd ed. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002).

John Higman, Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 1860-1925 (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2002).

Jacob Riis, How the Other Half Lives (NY: Charles Scribner's Son, 1880).


For the Music and Sheet Music for a song that also captures anti-immigrant sentiment, see "Don't Bite the Hand That's Feeding You" (1915) at http://lcweb2.loc.gov/diglib/ihas/loc.natlib.ihas.100007833/pageturner.html and http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?ammem/papr:@field(NUMBER+@band(edrs+50357r)) .








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