ABOUT THE LESSON
What Does It Mean to Be an American?
This is the central theme to the lesson. Ask your students this question throughout the readings and assignments!
This is one of six modules of What Does It Mean to Be an American?, a curriculum resource designed for high school and community college classrooms.
In this lesson, students explore the history of immigration to the United States, discuss the challenges and opportunities that migrants encounter when settling in the United States, and consider the roles that immigration, immigrant integration, and citizenship policies have played in the building of U.S. society.
For their final project, students research an immigrant group or U.S. immigration/integration policy of their choice and summarize its past and/or present role in U.S. society.
• What is the history of immigration to the United States?
• What factors drove and/or impeded the immigration and integration of different migrant groups in the United States?
• What kinds of challenges and opportunities do migrants encounter when settling in the United States?
• How have immigration, integration, and citizenship policies in U.S. history impacted the experiences of different migrant groups?
IN THIS LESSON, students will:
reflect on and assess the idea of the United States as a “nation of immigrants”.
trace the “four waves” of immigration in U.S. history, including their differing causes, contexts, and characteristics;
understand how the history of immigration and integration in the United States has both shaped and been shaped by various government policies and public sentiment toward immigrants;
learn several migration-related concepts and terminology;
learn about the history of Japanese migration to and within the United States;
hear and reflect on the family immigration stories of several young Americans;
consider the wide diversity of immigrants and immigration experiences in the United States today;
conduct research on an immigrant group in the United States or an immigration/integration-related policy of their choice.
The New Colossus
Have students read aloud The New Colossus, either through a projection or at this link.
Lead a discussion using the suggested points to the right.
“The New Colossus” is a sonnet written by American poet Emma Lazarus in 1883 in support of raising money to build the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal. The statue was dedicated in 1886, and in 1903 a plaque with the text of “The New Colossus” was mounted on the inner wall of the pedestal. Since then, Lazarus’s poem has been closely associated with the Statue of Liberty.
This poem is a “Petrarchan sonnet.” Its 14 lines are written in iambic pentameter and follow a strict rhyme scheme, notated below.
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame, a
With conquering limbs astride from land to land; b
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand b
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame a
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name a
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand b
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command b
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame. a
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she c
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor, d
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, c
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. d
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, c
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” d
NOTES ON THE TEXT
“The New Colossus” is the Statue of Liberty, which Lazarus contrasts with the ancient Colossus of Rhodes (“the brazen giant of Greek fame”), one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
The “sea-washed, sunset gates” (line 3) are the mouths of the Hudson and East Rivers, to the west of Brooklyn.
The “imprisoned lightning” (line 5) refers to the electric light in the Statue of Liberty’s torch, which in 1883 was a novelty.
The “air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame” (line 8) refers to New York Harbor between New York City and Brooklyn, which were separate cities in 1883. They were consolidated in 1898, 15 years after the poem was written.
The “huddled masses” (line 11) are the many immigrants coming to the United States, many of them through Ellis Island at the port of New York.
• Have you read this poem before? If not, are you familiar with parts of it? Which parts? Students may be most familiar with the last five lines, which are the most famous.
• What is this poem about? Why it is famous? This poem is about the Statue of Liberty, and it appears on a bronze plaque inside the statue’s pedestal. Along with the Statue of Liberty itself, it has become a well-known symbol of immigration to the United States.
• How does this poem portray the Statue of Liberty? To what extent do you think this characterization of the Statue of Liberty (and of the United States) is accurate? The Statue of Liberty is portrayed as a “mother of exiles” who enthusiastically welcomes the world’s poor and downtrodden to the United States. Student responses may vary regarding the accuracy of this portrayal.
• The United States has often been called a “nation of immigrants.” Several Founding Fathers (e.g., Alexander Hamilton) were immigrants themselves, and the rest were descendants of immigrants. Today most Americans trace at least part of their family history to another area of the world.
“Those who come hither are generally of the most
ignorant stupid sort of their own nation.”
“I had always hoped that this land might become a
safe and agreeable asylum to the virtuous and
persecuted part of mankind, to whatever nation they
These quotes, by two Founding Fathers of the United States,represent the mix of positive and negative perceptions that America has always held of immigrants.
These sentiments have both shaped and been shaped by the history of immigration to the United States.
Franklin’s quote refers specifically to Germans, who were the target of significant anti-immigrant sentiment at the time.
This may surprise students since German immigrants are no longer typically subject to such sentiments. (In fact, today more Americans trace their ancestry back to Germany than to any other foreign nation. 1 ) It may be worth noting that although anti-immigrant sentiment has always existed in the United States, its primary target changes over time.