Lit-up sign by the road that reads, US Border Patrol.
Photo by Jonathan McIntosh, Flickr CC

Teaching about immigration can be tough because students come to our classrooms with the battle lines already drawn and believing their minds are already made up. We know, for example, that “the border” occupies a large conceptual space in our collective minds and that certain racialized populations suffer from perceptions of illegality. I have successfully re-centered my classroom conversation in a more constructive direction by starting with something most students seem to have a complete lack of information about: how the U.S. immigration system actually works.

Below I share some resources and ideas for leading an hour long discussion on “everything you wanted to know about the immigration system but were afraid to ask.” The activity below would be a great fit for any course where you are going to spend several class days on migration in the United States: Global Sociology, Social Problems, Migration, Race & Ethnicity, or Crime & Deviance. This activity is intended to take advantage of the fact that a classroom is a special place designated for learning, where everyone (including the instructor) can always learn something new without feeling embarrassed of our ignorance.


Enter Ellis IslandDuring the 2012 election, immigration was not nearly as big of an issue as it has been in previous elections.  In the newest TSP Roundtable, leading scholars of immigration address why this might be the case and, more broadly, why immigration has long been a divisive political issue in the United States.  This is a great reading for any number of sociology classes.  A few questions for students to ponder after the reading include:


1)   How has immigration to the U.S. changed over time?

2)   According to Massey, when did the most recent cycle of xenophobia start, and why?

3)   How do immigration and race intersect?

The quiz, How Much Do You Know about U.S. Immigration, would also be a nice complement, though some of the figures may need to be updated slightly.

A group of graduate students at the University of Minnesota put together these fantastic resources on teaching race, ethnicity, and migration.

The Global REM Teaching Modules are a set of teaching resources related to Global R(ace) E(thnicity) and M(igration). Modules are appropriate for use in high school classrooms, and introductory college-level courses. Each teaching module includes a brief introduction to the topic, source materials, discussion questions, and suggested readings. These modules provide busy instructors with a series of comprehensive and organized 50-minute lesson plans for facilitating learning related to global race, ethnicity, and migration. At the same time, they are flexible enough to provide instructors room to use the modules in ways appropriate to the particular aims of their own course themes.

The main objectives of the Global REM Teaching Modules:

  1. To improve students’ research skills by encouraging them to utilize and analyze a variety of source materials
  2. To increase use of source materials related to issues of race, ethnicity, and migration, particularly in a global and/or comparative context
  3. To foster interdisciplinary thinking and to incorporate a wide range of disciplinary perspectives and methods in the classroom
  4. To provide busy teaching assistants and instructors with ready-made lesson plans for 50-minute class periods. The modules are especially designed for teaching assistants and instructors who may not have an expertise in race, ethnicity, and migration but aim to augment discussion of global issues related to these topics

The teaching modules were developed by an interdisciplinary team of graduate students in 2007, and are maintained by the Institute for Global Studies and the Immigration History Research Center. If you have questions or comments about the teaching modules, you may direct them to


This in-class debate allows students to understand both sides of the controversy over whether English should be the official language of the United States. This activity is designed to be used with “English-Only Triumphs, but the Costs are High” by Alejandro Portes in Contexts Spring 2002.

Directions: Students will read the article before the class period and come to class prepared with 3 arguments in favor of English being the official language of the United States (check out for arguments on this side) and 3 arguments opposed to English being the official language. Students will be assigned a side to take when they come into class. The two sides will break into smaller groups of 4-5 and discuss their arguments supporting their assigned side. Each small group will have 1 or 2 representatives who will be responsible for presenting their arguments to the other side. All representatives from one side will present their groups arguments, followed by all representatives from the other side. While one side is presenting, each student on the opposing side will come up with a rebuttal to an argument presented. After both sides have presented, the floor will be open for debate. After the debate, all students will come out of character and will have the opportunity to express their opinions on the issue. Afterward, all students will write an in-class reflection on what they learned from the debate and how they feel about this issue.

To be completed before class:

English should be the official language of the United States because:




English should not be the official language of the United States because:




In-class Small Group Work:

After all members of your group have presented their arguments, pick 3 that the group agrees are the best arguments for the debate:




As the other side presents their arguments, think of a rebuttal to one or more of their points.


Individual Reflection (after the debate):

What was your position on this issue before the debate?

What did you learn from this debate?

What is your position on this issue now?


Using article Permanent Impermanence by Syed Ali from the most recent issue of Contexts, Graduate Student Editorial Board member Shannon Golden offers our blog these ideas for use in the classroom. The full text of this article is available for free online!

This article would be great for a class or unit on immigration, globalization, or world cities.


1) For a class that has covered immigration policy:

-Compare and contrast immigration and citizenship policy in Dubai with that of other immigrant-receiving countries, such as the U.S., Japan, Australia, Canada, or western European countries.

-Do you agree with the author’s conclusion that Dubai’s policy may represent the future?

2) To focus on the intersection of biography and social structure, the instructor could:

-Provide biographical/narrative case studies of several foreign workers in Dubai, one that would represent a blue-collar laborer, another middle class example, and an upper class professional. Ask students to develop a sociological analysis of these lives using info from the article, illustrating how social structures are experienced differently by different groups of people.

3) Suggested small group discussion questions:

-What are the strengths and weaknesses of Dubai’s immigration policies? What are the intended and unintended consequences?

-Who are the actors who have a stake in determining the policies? Who benefits from this system? Who loses in this system?

– Discuss the following concepts in relation to this article: power, citizenship, labor, home, rights, legality, belonging

– The author discusses Paul Krugman’s writing on “the Dubai effect”: “Writing in 2006, Krugman said that a guest worker program could amount to a dangerous betrayal of the United States’ democratic ideals. It would, he wrote, basically form an entrenched caste system of temporary workers whose interests would largely be ignored and whose rights would be circumscribed. Further, their wages would undoubtedly be less than those of people with greater labor market mobility, though the ripple effects of a glut of guest workers would be expected to lower wages for all workers in sectors where guest workers are “bonded” to their employers, Dubai-style.” (p.29) Do you agree with Krugman’s speculations about what would happen if the U.S. adopted similar policies to Dubai? Discuss the implications of such a change.

4) Have the students read one of the “recommended resources” and discuss its connection to this article.

This is the first in a series of posts that offers learning activities to accompany Contexts feature articles. This first post is designed to be used with Robert J. Sampson’s Winter 2008 article Rethinking Crime and Immigration,which can be read for free online.

This learning activity would ideally be used before the students read the article.

Take your best guess at the following questions regarding recent immigration to the United States:

1. True or False:  Immigration is associated with lower crime rates in most urban, disadvantaged neighborhoods.

2. Where are most recent immigrants in the U.S. originally from?  You can choose more than one.

a. The Middle East
b. Africa
c. Asia
d. Latin America

3. What percentage of the world’s immigrants come to the United States?

a. 40%
b. 25%
c. 10%
d. Less than 1%

4. What is the most common reason that people emigrate to the U.S.?

a. Employment
b. Escape persecution or harsh conditions (seeking refugee or asylum status)
c. To join a family member
d. Fleeing criminal charges

5. True or False:  Most immigrants come to the U.S. legally.

6. Where did most refugees who resettled in the U.S. come from in 2002?

a. Iran
b. Former Soviet Union
c. Afghanistan
d. Sudan
e. Vietnam

7. Immigrants made up ____ percent of the U.S. population in 2000?

a. 5
b. 11
c. 22
d. 29

8. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, the total number of immigrants living in the U.S. was more than 31 million.  How many undocumented immigrants were living in the U.S. that same year (estimated)?

a. 7 million
b. 10 million
c. 15 million
d. 20 million

9.  In 2000, almost three quarters of immigrants settled in ___ states?

a. 4
b. 5
c. 6
d. 7

10. About what percent of recent immigrants do not speak English in the home?

a. 55
b. 65
c. 75
d. 85

Answers: 1) True, 2) C&D, 3) D, 4) C, 5) True, 6) B, 7) B, 8) A, 9) C (California, New York, Texas, Florida, New Jersey and Illinois), 10) D

Adapted from PBS Independent Television Series Immigration Myths and Realities Quiz. Detailed explanations of the answers are found there.