Social History for Every Classroom


Social History for Every Classroom

menuAmerican Social History Project  ·    Center for Media and Learning

Immigration Debates in the Era of "Open Gates"

In this activity students analyze a political cartoon, a presidential speech and an anti-immigration pamphlet from the early 20th century. After analyzing the documents, students write about why the United States passed immigration quotas in the 1920s.


  • Students will analyze debates over immigration in the early twentieth century to understand the tension between the need for labor and anxiety over immigrants' political and cultural qualifications for citizenship. 


Step 1: (Optional: The teacher may want to introduce the topic by reviewing current immigration debates and push/pull factors for immigrants, documented and undocumented, to the United States today.) Pass out copies of the cartoon analysis worksheet and the cartoon. Also project the cartoon on overhead or Smartboard. Ask a volunteer to read the description of the cartoon out loud and the title/caption. Ask for volunteers to read each of the quotes from the cartoon (typed out on the worksheet in Part I) from each of the various characters: contractor, politician, etc.

Step 2: Allow students to work individually or in pairs to complete Part II of the worksheet by analyzing the cartoon. After students have had time to complete the worksheet, lead a share-out and discussion of the cartoon, making sure that everyone understands its content. Before moving to Step 3, review the key points:

  • In the early twentieth century, people did not agree about whether immigration was good or bad for the United States.

  • In the early twentieth century, people were unsure whether or not new immigrants were "fit" for citizenship. 

Step 3: Now pass out the two written documents, the anti-immigration pamphlet and the speech from President Cleveland. Ask students to underline or highlight specific arguments for and against immigration in each document. (The teacher may vary this portion by giving half the students one document and half the other, or by reading both documents aloud with students as they highlight arguments.) Ask students to share out what pro and con arguments they found. After reading the documents, discuss:

  • Given that there were so many objections to immigration at the time, why do you think it took legislators until 1924 to restrict immigration?

  • How was the immigration debate of the 1900s different than the immigration debate today (especially considering today's idea of "illegal" or "legal" immigrants)?  

Step 4: After reading and discussing the documents, ask students to individually respond to the question on the back of the worksheet (Part III): Given that there were so many objections to immigration at the time, why do you think it took the U.S. Congress until 1924 to restrict immigration from Europe?

Historical Context

As the 20th century began, millions of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe poured into Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh, and other U.S. cities. In New York, the nation's largest city, more than half of the population was foreign-born. Many immigrants came in search of economic opportunity, fleeing depressed economies, high land prices or prejudices in their old countries. 

Immigrant labor powered the rapid industrialization of the late 19th and early 20th century. Employers were eager to hire the new immigrants and happy to pay them less than most American-born workers would accept. Many politicians wooed new voters with favors and jobs in exchange for votes; consequently, political machines exercised great power in urban areas with large immigrant populations. 

Other native-born Americans, however, were wary and often hostile towards new immigrants. They worried that cheap labor undercut their own economic security. They feared their diminished political power. And they were often prejudiced against the darker complexions and unfamiliar religions--the great majority of "new" immigrants were Catholic or Jewish--of the newcomers.  

Debates for and against immigration played out for decades, finally culminating in a nativist push to restrict immigration from southern and eastern Europe. U.S. Congress passed quota laws in 1921 and 1924 that remained in place until 1965.  

Source | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, 2008.
Creator | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning
Rights | Copyright American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Item Type | Teaching Activity
Cite This document | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, “Immigration Debates in the Era of "Open Gates",” SHEC: Resources for Teachers, accessed September 24, 2023,

Print and Share