September 2018


Students will:

  • Review a timeline of U.S. immigration policy and laws from European colonization to today
  • Consider the benefits of studying immigration policy to learn about the past and the present
  • Identify patterns in immigration policy and the factors that led to those policies
  • Collaboratively synthesize their findings and present them to the class
  • Discuss other primary sources to use in creating a more complete picture of historical and present U.S. immigration


Notes: This timeline covers many influential moments in the history of immigration policy in the United States, but it is not exhaustive. As students review the timeline, it is important to note that many policymakers, activists, immigrants, and other people not highlighted here played a vital role in immigration reform efforts throughout history. Students should also keep in mind that studying policy is just one step in learning about a more complete history of immigration and how people have experienced it. Teachers interested in providing a more comprehensive history of immigration in the United States should consider using Immigration and the U.S. Policy Debate—a multi-day curriculum unit that includes readings, videos, and eight engaging lessons.

Immigration remains a charged and challenging topic, particularly around instances of forced migration and undocumented immigration. Discussing these issues in the classroom can bring greater understanding of the past and present for students. We encourage teachers to carefully consider the dynamics of their classrooms as they prepare to teach these materials and to take the steps necessary to make their classrooms a safe and productive place for learning for all students.


Ask students to skim the timeline for homework prior to starting this lesson in class. You may wish to instruct them to come prepared to identify three significant events and why they found them interesting and invite them to do so at the beginning or end of class.

In the Classroom

1. Focus Question—Begin class by posing the following question: Why do people become immigrants? Invite students to respond, and list their answers on the board. What economic, political, environmental, or social circumstances might influence decisions to emigrate? Do students believe motivations for migration have changed over time?

Next, ask students what they know about U.S. immigration policy. Can students give any examples of immigration policies that the United States currently has? Immigration policies that the United States once had? Challenge students to think of the factors that shape U.S. immigration policies, either historically or in the present.

Tell students that they will examine a timeline of U.S. immigration policy throughout history to learn more about immigration.

2. Exploring the Timeline—Break students into small groups. Distribute the handout Graphic Organizer: U.S. Immigration Policy. Assign each group a time period (listed below), and explain that once the class reconvenes, students will fill in the information for the remaining time periods on their handouts. Remind students to also answer the other questions on the handout with their group. Note: Group seven, the group analyzing immigration policy from the Trump administration, has the largest number of timeline entries to review. You may wish to take this into consideration in assigning groups.

  • Group One: 1492-1830
  • Group Two: 1882-1924
  • Group Three: 1942-1953
  • Group Four: 1954-1986
  • Group Five: 1986-2001
  • Group Six: 2002-2015
  • Group Seven: 2017-2018

Groups should start to look over the events of their assigned time period on the timeline together. (If your students do not have access to technology in the classroom, you may wish to view the timeline as a class or otherwise adapt this step of the exercise to better fit your class’s needs.) As students examine the timeline events, they should fill in their section of the graphic organizer and answer the questions that follow.

3. Sharing Findings—After students have completed their respective sections of the handout, bring the class back together and have each group share some of their findings. Along with sharing some of the information that they recorded from the timeline, ask each group to share the one-sentence description that they wrote. Invite other students in the class to ask follow-up questions if they have any. As each group presents, ask the rest of the class to fill in the relevant section of their organizers. Once students have shared their findings with one another, invite students to spend a moment reviewing their graphic organizer, which should now be completely filled out, and to reflect on the one-sentence descriptions of each time period from their peers.

4. Concluding Discussion—Can students identify similarities and differences among immigration policies from the past and present? What might account for these similarities and differences? Have them consider what types of factors led to each policy, how other events influenced the creation of immigration policies, and how different groups of people responded to policies throughout time. For example, what role has xenophobia played in shaping immigration policy, in the past and today? Concerns about national security? Concerns about the economy?

Tell students that studying immigration policy is one way that they can learn about the history of immigration and the current debate. But, remind students that immigration is a complex issue with many layers, and studying policy alone gives insight into just some of those complexities. What other primary sources could students look to in order to learn more about immigration? What could these sources reveal about immigration that studying immigration policies alone cannot? If students are unfamiliar with the many types of primary sources that they might use, you may wish to list a few, such as oral histories, personal narratives, census data, social media posts and campaigns, and photographs.

Extra Challenges

  1. Encourage students to conduct an interview with an immigrant. If possible, and if students have permission from the interviewee, you may wish to have students record or film these interviews and then share them with the class.
  2. Ask students if there are any present-day events taking place in their region or at school that could be added to the timeline. How are people in their school or community talking about immigration policy today? You may also wish to have students write the steps that it would take to organize a group or event for discussion and further learning about historical and present immigration debates.
  3. Instruct students to pick a date from the timeline that interests them and research more deeply what else was happening in the country and the world at that time. Have students write about how the domestic and international events they identified may have contributed to the immigration policy they chose.
Back to top