Borders and bans: U.S. immigration politics in historical perspective

This is a resource for educators, with links to publicly available online materials for teachers and students to learn about the history of immigration policy in the United States. This resource includes ideas for incorporating the historical materials into high school and college classrooms.

  1. Overview
  2. U.S. immigration history resources
  3. Instructional protocols and assessments


The election of Donald J. Trump as President of the United States may have opened a new period of heightened nativism and anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies. But these processes are not new in American history. This document is intended to be a resource for secondary school teachers who want to develop curriculum to teach about the historical roots of present-day immigration issues, particularly around anti-immigrant policies and the criminalization of unauthorized migration.

In the second section of this document (U.S. Immigration History Resources), we have compiled a thematically organized list of short readings and resources, all available online, that speak specifically to this history. This is not meant to be a comprehensive syllabus, but rather a reference that connects teachers and students to selected, publicly available materials that we think might be of help in contextualizing current debates over immigration. (For a more in-depth syllabus on U.S. immigration history, with an extensive list of journal articles, books, and links to online archives, see the #ImmigrationSyllabus, developed by immigration historians, at


In the third section of this document (Instructional Protocols and Assessments), you will find a set of instructional strategies that teachers can use to structure students’ learning as they engage with these texts and sources. You will also find ideas for assessments or projects that can be used with the sources in this document.

We hope that these resources will be useful! For more information, you can contact the creators of this document:

  • Dr. Libby Garland (, Associate Professor of History, Kingsborough Community College, The City University of New York
  • Dr. Joanna Yip (, Multilingual Education Instructional Specialist, and alumna of the Doctoral Program in Urban Education at the CUNY Graduate Center


  • Where did ideas about “undocumented” or “illegal” immigration come from?
  • What are the historical roots of American nativism?
  • How did the United States define and start to police its borders?
  • How do ideas of immigration connect to the construction of race in American history?
  • What is the history of immigrant detention and deportation in the United States?


1. Nativism

Tyler Anbinder, “Today’s Banned Immigrants Are No Different From Our Immigrant Ancestors,” February 7, 2017, American Historical Association blog

Paul A. Kramer, “Not Who We Are,” Slate, February 3, 2017

Paul A. Kramer, “Trump’s Anti-Immigration Racism Represents an American Tradition,” New York Times, January 22, 2018

Alan M. Kraut, “‘Make America Great Again’--Again?Center for Migration Studies, January 3, 2017

Alan M. Kraut, “Nativism, An American Perennial,” Center for Migration Studies, February 8, 2016

Lizzy Ratner, “Nobody Wanted to Take Us In: The Story of Jared Kushner’s Family, and Mine,” The Nation, January 26, 2017

2. The invention of “documentedness” and the rise of “crimmigration”


Alan Aja and Alejandra Marchevsky, “How Immigrants Became Criminals,” Boston Review, March 17, 2017

Donna Gabaccia, “Great Migration Debates: Keywords in Historical Perspective,Border Battles: The U.S. Immigration Debate, July 28, 2006

Julia Greene, “‘Bad Dudes’: Immigrants, Illegality, and Human Rights,” Huffington Post, February 25, 2017

“A Look Inside U.S. Immigration Prisons,” Democracy Now, May 4, 2006

“History of the Undocumented Immigrant,” Lower East Side Tenement Museum

Juliana Jiménez Jaramillo, “Why Isn’t My Green Card Green?Slate, July 4, 2012

How Immigration Became Illegal:” Democracy Now, interview with Aviva Chomsky, May 30, 2014

3. Defining and policing U.S. borders

David Bacon, “Displaced People: NAFTA’s Most Important Product,” NACLA Report on the Americas, September/October 2008

Wayne A. Cornelius, “Impacts of Border Enforcement on Unauthorized Mexican Migration to the United States,” Border Battles, September 26, 2006

Kelly Lytle Hernandez, “How Crossing the US-Mexico Border Became a Crime,The Conversation, April 30, 2017

Interview with Patrick Ettinger, Author of Imaginary Lines: Border Enforcement and the Origins of Undocumented Immigration, 1882-1930, Book TV, C-SPAN, September 9, 2015

Joseph Nevins and Timothy Dunn, “Barricading the Border,” NACLA Report on the Americas, November/December 2008

Aristide Zolberg, “A Century of Informality on the United States-Mexico Border,” Border Battles: The U.S. Immigration Debate, August 17, 2006

4. Deportation

Kelly Lytle Hernandez, “America’s Mass Deportation System Is Rooted in Racism,” The Conversation, February 26, 2017

Emily Pope-Obeda, “‘This Deportation Business’: 1920s and the Present,”, May/June 2016

Elliott Young, “Abolishing ICE Doesn’t Go Far Enough,” History News Network, July 15, 2018

5. Racial boundaries of migration and citizenship

135 Years Ago, Another Travel Ban Was in the News,” New York Times, March 17, 2017

Alvin Chang, “Watch How Immigration in America Has Changed Over the Last 200 Years,” (interactive data) Vox,  April 26, 2016

Alvin Chang and Gina Barton, “The Racist History of US Immigration Policy” (video), Vox, January 15, 2016

Massoud Hayoun, “A Chinese American Lesson for Trump,” Al-Jazeera, January 31, 2017

Erika Lee, “A History Lesson for Donald Trump and His Supporters,” New York Daily News, August 18, 2015

Maddalena Marinari, “Another Time in History that the US Created Travel Bans--Against Italians,” PRI’s The World, October 2, 2017

Natalia Molina, “The Myth of the Unassimilable Mexican,” Racism Review, November 28,


Marian L. Smith, “Race, Nationality, and Reality: INS Administration of Racial Provisions in U.S. Immigration and Nationality Law Since 1898,” Prologue Magazine, Summer 2002, Vol. 34, No. 2:

Part I:

Part II:

Part III:

6. Living as undocumented / becoming ‘legal’

“Bengali Harlem,” Interview with Alaudin Ullah, The Story, NPR, May 24, 2013

Mae Ngai, “How Grandma Got Legal,” Border Battles: The U.S. Immigration Debate, July 28, 2006

Hansi Lo Wang, “Chinese American Descendants Uncover Forged Family History,”  Morning Edition, NPR, December 17, 2013

“When We Were Illegal Aliens: Jewish Immigration Under the Quota Laws,” Interview with Libby

Garland, Tablet Magazine, May 27, 2014

7. Refugees

Hilary Goodfriend, “A Demand for Sanctuary,Jacobin, February 17, 2017

Historians Put Immigration Executive Order in Historical Context,Process, February 16, 2017

Joseph Nevins, “How U.S. Policy in Honduras Set the Stage for Today’s Mass Migrations,” The Conversation, October 31, 2016

A. Naomi Paik, “US Turned Away Thousands of Haitian Asylum-seekers and Detained Hundreds More in the 90sThe Conversation, June 28, 2018

“We’ve Been Here Before: Historians Annotate and Analyze Immigration Ban’s Place in History,” The World, Public Radio International, February 1, 2017

8. “Homeland security” and post-9/11 immigration policy

Nicholas De Genova, “Migrant ‘Illegality’ and the Metaphysics of Antiterrorism: ‘Immigrants’ Rights’ in the Aftermath of the Homeland Security State,” July 28, 2006

Deepa Iyer and Jayesh M. Rathod, “9/11 and the Transformation of U.S. Immigration Law and Policy,” Human Rights Magazine, Vol. 38, No. 1, Winter 2011

“We Are All Suspects Now,” Book talk with Tram Nguyen, Author of We Are All Suspects Now: Untold Stories from Immigrant Communities After 9/11, Book Talk, C-SPAN, September 22, 2005

Further Reading: Books on the history of undocumented immigration and the criminalization of immigration


(For a more in-depth bibliography of secondary and primary sources, see the #ImmigrationSyllabus developed by immigration historians, at

David Bacon, Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants. Boston: Beacon Press, 2009.

Vivek Bald, Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013.

Rachel Buff, Against the Deportation Terror: Organizing for Immigrant Rights in the Twentieth Century. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2017.

Aviva Chomsky, Undocumented: How Immigration Became Illegal. Boston: Beacon Press, 2014.

Timothy J. Dunn, Blockading the Border and Human Rights: The El Paso Operation that Remade Immigration Enforcement. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2009.

Patrick Ettinger, Imaginary Lines: Border Enforcement and the Origins of Undocumented

Immigration, 1882-1930. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2009.

Libby Garland, After They Closed the Gates: Jewish Illegal Immigration to the United States, 1921-1965. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014.

Kelly Lytle Hernandez, City of Inmates: Conquest, Rebellion, and the Rise of Human Caging in Los Angeles, 1771-1965. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017.

Kelly Lytle Hernandez, Migra! A History of the U.S. Border Patrol. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010.

Torrie Hester, Deportation: The Origins of U.S. Policy. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017.

Hidetaka Hirota, Expelling the Poor: Atlantic Seaboard States and the Nineteenth-Century Origins of American Immigration Policy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.

S. Deborah Kang, The INS on the Line: Making Immigration Law on the US-Mexico Border, 1917-1954. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.

Daniel Kanstroom, Deportation Nation: Outsiders in American History. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007.

Erika Lee, At America’s Gates: Chinese Immigration During the Exclusion Era, 1882-1943. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.

Deirdre Maloney, National Insecurities: Immigrants and U.S. Deportation Policy since 1882. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012.

Hiroshi Motomura, Immigration Outside the Law. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Joseph Nevins, Operation Gatekeeper: The Rise of the ‘Illegal Alien’ and the Making of the U.S.-Mexico Boundary. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Mae Ngai, Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004.


The following protocols can be used alongside the above resources to facilitate students’ understanding of immigration history and themes. After identifying content objectives and essential questions, teachers can select instructional protocols that best serve the line of inquiry and thinking needed to study the content and topics in these sources. Many of these protocols are text-based and text-dependent, but note that some of the sources are roundtable discussions or videos. The protocols may subsequently require adjustment, depending on the source and your classroom context.


Students work collaboratively to define the origin, purpose, value, and limitations of the text or source they are analyzing. Students identify textual evidence for their evaluation of the source.


Evidence Continuum

Teachers start with a debatable question. Students read the text and surface important facts and details. They generate a claim and counterclaim in response to the debatable question. They select the pieces of evidence from the text/source and place them on a continuum, deciding where the evidence falls in support of the claim or counterclaim.

4As Text Protocol

Students read the text(s). After one read, they do a second read with the following questions in mind:

  • What assumptions does the author of the text hold?
  • What do you agree with in the text?
  • What do you want to argue with in the text?
  • What parts of the text do you want to aspire to (or act upon)?

Students select an excerpt that encapsulates their thinking for each of the 4As. Students meet in groups to discuss their answers using the 4As. The group should do one round per question until they discuss all 4As, and share the excerpts they chose from the text for each.


Sentence Types

The teacher curates a text-set of sources that respond to an overarching essential question. Students read the text/sources in the set. After solidifying their understanding of the texts/sources, students work collaboratively to write sentences of different types for each source:

a declarative or imperative statement

a question

and an exclamatory sentence.

Each sentence should articulate the gist or most salient idea they took away from their reading/viewing of the text or source. By writing the sentences using different sentence types, they articulate their understanding in different ways.

I Used to Think, Now I Think

After reading/viewing the historical sources, students write a response using each of the sentence stems:        

  • I used to think....                                                                         
  • But now, I think...

Students share out their thinking in groups or as a class. The teacher can deepen the discussion by probing into what changed their minds, how their thinking was revised as a result of engaging with new information about history.                                                         


Here Now, There, Then                                                   

  1. Identify a controversial issue or fairness topic that has changed significantly over time and uncover students’ basic knowledge about the topic.
  2. Create a list (Column A) of present stances, values, and judgments about the topic.
  3. Students read through the historical documents or texts to learn about attitudes and thinking from a different time period.
  4. Create a list (Column B) of past stances, values, and judgments about the topic.
  5. Compare the past and present stances in Columns A and B.
  6. Discuss:
  1. Why have things changed, or not changed?
  2. Why did people in the past think differently from how we think today?
  1. Close the discussion: How could we find out more about the way people thought back then?

Tug of War 

1. Present a dilemma to students taken from the text or source.

2. Identify factors that “pull” at each side of the dilemma, in the two sides of the dilemma.

3. Ask students to think of “tugs,” or reasons why society or culture is swayed to either side of the dilemma.        

4. Ask students to generate “what if?” questions to explore the topic further.

Four Corners        

Teacher establishes 4 alternatives or choices (of more or less equal appeal) to a given situation or question. Students write their choice and 3 reasons on an index card. Students move to whichever corner of the room has been designated for one of the four choices. In the corners, students discuss their reasoning with others who chose the same. Some modifications may include: requiring students to present textual evidence for their choice based on the readings provided, having each corner/choice be aligned with a different text out of a set of sources that students have read, or asking students to find someone from a different corner to discuss their reasoning.        

Anticipatory Reading Guides

Anticipatory Reading Guides include major ideas presented in a text and polemical statements that challenge students’ beliefs or assumptions. They require students to respond to the statements by agreeing or disagreeing and to justify their response.

Clustering & Concept Mapping: Finding Connections in Immigration History


        Before the routine, the teacher must assemble a group of words or phrases that are central to the sources students have just viewed/read. After determining the words, the teacher creates a manipulative with each word.  

Part I: Sorting

  1. Students work in groups to organize the words in whatever way they like. For example, a group might put one word in the middle of a page and draw spokes to represent the association with other ideas. They might create a hierarchy of ideas, identify cause-effect relationships, create a flowchart, or Venn Diagram, etc. Groups can arrange the words on a table. NOTE: The teacher does not provide categories or guidance, but prompts the students to do the sense-making on their own.
  2. Distribute the following to each group: slips of paper, poster paper, glue stick, and marker(s) (if available). The arrangement of the words can be posted on poster paper or on a wall.
  3. The final product must clearly reveal a conceptual relationship between the ideas. To create a cohesive concept map, participants can add or remove a (limited) number of words/phrases.

Part II: Sharing

After completing their maps, groups now have the opportunity to showcase their work to other groups and view the works of other groups.

  1. This activity works best if one group observes and discusses the concept map of another group, while the hosting group remains silent, and vice versa.
  2. After discussing, analyzing, assessing the concept map, the visiting group is now silent.  Members of the hosting group explain their thinking as to why they clustered and sorted the words the way they did.

Part III: Self-Assessment

  1. Learners complete a short written self-assessment in which they reflect on what they know or do not know about the topic and their depth of knowledge.

People, Places, & Events: Cause-Effect Relationships

1. Students select 15-20 words from the reading assignment

2. Students sort them into the following categories, based on their knowledge from the reading and their assumptions:

  • People
  • Places
  • Events
  • Objects

3. Using keywords from each category, students write a series of statements explaining either 1) problems, or 2) outcomes/cause & effect relationships.

4. Students share their generated statements to prompt discussion, or to brainstorm topic sentences for paragraph writing.


  1. Possible RAFT Writing Assignments, using ideas, information, and details from immigration history texts.








Advocate for your clients’ application to immigrate to the U.S.

Undocumented Immigrant, about to be deported

Family member back in your home country

Audio letter or poem

Your feelings about living in the U.S.

Immigration official representing the U.S. government

People hoping to come to the United States

Public Service Announcement

Changes in immigration policies, during a given time or place

Owner of a company that employs many immigrants

Local government official

Testimony or prepared statement

How changes in immigration policies have affected your business

  1. Performance-Based Assessment Ideas

Project ideas might involve students using the listed sources/texts to:

  • Create resources and materials that would be used for a teach-in, to educate immigrants about immigration policy.
  • Prepare for and lead a discussion with local leaders in your community about key immigration issues and questions.
  • Create a guidebook meant for new immigrants to the United States in languages other than English. What information would be important to include in this guidebook?

Borders & Bans: U.S. Immigration Politics in Historical Perspective