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Debating Immigration Restriction: The Ellis Island Era

In this activity, students consider arguments for and against unrestricted immigration during the Ellis Island era. Students analyze political cartoons, letters, newspaper articles, posters, and other sources, noting evidence in the documents to support the viewpoints of the various figures in the 1903 cartoon "The Immigrant." This activity also includes modifications for low-level readers.


  • Students will be able to describe different viewpoints for and against immigration restriction during the early 20th century.  

  • Students will cite evidence from primary sources.

This activity supports the following Common Core Literacy Standards in History/Social Studies:

  • RHSS.6-8.1. Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources.


NOTE: The directions for this activity include modifications for elementary students. "MS/HS" denotes when sources or strategies are suggested for middle school and high school students only. "Elementary" indicates that the strategy or source is designated for elementary students. 

Step 1: Project the cartoon "The Immigrant." The Power Point file contains successive slides for bringing up each of the figures one by one. The Smart Notebook file is also set up to allow you to look at one character at a time. If not using Power Point or Smartboard, ask students to focus in on one part of the cartoon at a time (teachers can facilitate this by asking students to make "viewfinders" or lenses with their hands to block out other parts of the image). If not using Power Point, the teacher may want to pass out copies of the cartoon.  

Begin by focusing on the immigrant and his wife, his luggage, and the ships in the background. With students, discuss:

  • Who is he?

  • Where is he coming from?

  • Where might he be going?

  • What are his motivations for coming to the U.S.?

One by one, show or focus on the other six figures in the cartoon and discuss what they look like, what their signs say, and what perspective each represents.  

Step 2: Differentiate this step according to the level of the students:

  • MS/HS: Divide students into groups of 6. Each group member should choose one of six characters in the cartoon to focus on and use that worksheet to analyze the evidence. All students should receive the other documents. Students should read all of the documents and find quotes/evidence supporting that character's viewpoint and cite it on their worksheets. 

  • Elementary: Use the cartoon analysis worksheet to compare "Americans All!-Victory Liberty Loan" and "The High Tide of Immigration." Students are looking for examples of pro- and anti-immigration positions.

Step 3: Differentiate this step according to the level of the students:


Have each student pick a partner with a character who represents the opposite viewpoint. The students will write a dialogue between their two characters. One character writes a sentence that begins one of two ways, depending on the point of view:

  • I think immigration should be restricted because...

  • I do not think immigration should be restricted because...

Students complete the sentences using an argument their characters would make and evidence from the documents. Students should pass the paper back and forth, writing sentences responding to each other's points, using arguments and evidence from the document. The teacher should set the number of turns passing the sheet back and forth based on the level of the students. 


As an extension the the cartoon analysis, students should look through some or all of the additional documents and choose quotes from the text to support the point of view of their image. Differentiate this portion by giving more advance students higher-level text documents. 

Source | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, 2011.
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 , “Debating Immigration Restriction: The Ellis Island Era,” SHEC: Resources for Teachers, accessed November 29, 2023,

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