May 2019


Students will:

  • Practice image analysis skills.
  • Understand the process for applying for asylum in the United States.
  • Review a timeline of major laws and policies related to asylum in the United States.
  • Analyze data about recent asylum trends.

Remind students that for many people, conversations about immigration policy could be personal or emotional. As you discuss these issues with your class, remind students that it is important to be respectful of the experiences of others, to think before they speak, and to be prepared to support their statements with evidence. You should also read and view all sources before sharing them with students to be sure that they are appropriate for your classroom.


Handout: Photo Analysis: Close Looking or Images Slideshow

Handout: Photo Analysis: Graphic Organizer

Handout: Key Terms

Handout: Primary Pathways for Individuals Fleeing Persecution to Enter the United States

Handout: Timeline of Major Refugee and Asylum Laws and Policies

Handout: U.S. Asylee Data 1990–2017

Videos: These short videos from the Choices Program are used in this lesson:

Note: Teachers will need to be able to project video in their classrooms.

In the Classroom

1. Introduction

Write the question “What might force you (and your family) to abandon your home and leave your country?” on the board. After students have considered the question individually or in small groups, ask students if they’ve heard about recent immigration issues in the news. What is an asylum seeker? What are some reasons that asylum seekers leave their homes?

As students share responses, write on the board these common reasons why some people choose to leave their homes (push factors) and the reasons why they might choose another country (pull factors).

2. Visual Analysis

Distribute one copy of the Photo Analysis: Graphic Organizer to each student. Share images with students either by providing one photograph for each student from the Photo Analysis: Close Looking handout or projecting an image(s) from the Images Slideshow.

Review instructions with students, reminding them that citizens’ views on immigration issues are often shaped by images we see in the media. It is important to develop critical thinking skills related to images as well as news stories. Ask students to complete analysis of their image using the graphic organizer. You may wish to ask students to share their responses or keep their responses private for now and return to the images again later in the lesson.

3. Understanding the Asylum Process

Return to the discussion about why people might move to another country by showing a brief video Why has the United States been a destination for immigrants? to students. What main ideas did students hear?

Distribute the Key Terms handout, and begin by reviewing the terms refugee, asylum seeker, and migrant with the class.

Indicate that in order for refugees or asylum seekers to be admitted to the United States, they must provide evidence of credible fear of persecution or torture. As you read the credible fear definition, ask students to underline the last line which includes the language from international protocols (also incorporated into U.S. law) indicating that asylum seekers must demonstrate persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, and/or membership in a particular social group or political opinion.

Distribute one copy of the handout Primary Pathways for Individuals Fleeing Persecution to Enter the United States to each student. Review the flow chart with the various pathways refugees and asylees may take as they seek to enter the United States.

4. Important Refugee and Asylum Laws and Policies

Indicate to students that the U.S. policies on refugee and asylum law have changed over time. Much of our attention recently has focused on the U.S.-Mexico border, which historically has been fairly fluid. Show the brief video How has the U.S.-Mexico border changed since the nineteenth century? to students.

Distribute one copy of the handout Timeline of Major Refugee and Asylum Laws and Policies to each student. Ask students to read silently and circle unfamiliar words or concepts, underline important ideas, and place a question mark next to ideas they would like to discuss. Alternatively, read through the timeline together as a class. The links embedded in the timeline connect students to primary source documents. If you have additional time, you may wish to direct students to analyze those policy documents.

5. U.S. Asylee Data Analysis

Ask students to make predictions:

  • From which country were most asylees accepted in 2017?
  • How many asylum seekers do students think the United States admits each year?
  • Which age group is most likely to be granted asylum?

Distribute one copy of the handout U.S. Asylee Data 1990–2017 to each student. You may wish to ask students to review the information in small groups or do so together as a class. Ask students to mark what they find interesting or surprising about the data, using their observations and questions as discussion points.

6. Invite Student Perspectives

Ask students to discuss these questions either in small groups or in a whole-class discussion.

  • What should be the primary goal(s) of U.S. asylum policy?
  • Which Trump administration policies on asylum do students support?
  • Which Trump administration policies on asylum do students oppose?
  • What other viewpoints or related issues would be valuable to consider in order to more fully understand this issue?

Additional Resources

  1. Read The Week article “The complicated history of asylum in America — explained” to learn more about the history of asylum law in the United States.
  2. Review the New York Times lesson plan “Deconstructing the Wall: Teaching About the Symbolism, Politics and Reality of the U.S.-Mexico Border,” which provides information about the current U.S.-Mexico border wall, analyzes the wall as a political symbol, and explores life along the border.
  3. Read the Council on Foreign Relations report “CFR Backgrounder: Central America’s Turbulent Northern Triangle” to learn more about some of the “push” factors influencing many Central Americans to seek asylum in the United States.
  4. Read the Council on Foreign Relations report, “CFR Backgrounder: How the U.S. Patrols Its Borders” to learn more about U.S. border security, the use of National Guard and active-duty troops, and challenges to U.S. national security.

Extra Challenge

  1. Invite students to write an editorial for a local newspaper about one of the Trump administration’s recent immigration policies. When students have finished writing, ask them to peer review their editorial with a classmate and incorporate feedback before submitting it.
  2. Have students choose one example of an immigration policy from U.S. history and, in writing, compare and contrast it to one of the Trump administration’s recent immigration policies. Students may wish to discuss the similarities and differences in the provisions outlined in the policy, the events that may have shaped the policy, and the groups affected by the policy.
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