Author: Cynthia B. Goldberg School

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Did America really welcome European immigrants to its shores between the years of 1840 and 1925?

Author: Cynthia B. Goldberg

School: Mead Elementary School

District: Ansonia, Connecticut

The story of America has always been a story of immigrants. America is a nation that has been shaped by many people from many different cultures and lands. This, in turn, has shaped our national narrative of America as the “Great Melting Pot”, and the “Land of Golden Opportunity” for a “Nation of Immigrants”. However, does history tell us another side of the story? How did Americans respond to each new wave of immigrants? Did they respond with hospitality or hostility?

Document Summary:

Document 1, “The New Colossus”, supports the positive view of America as a welcoming place of safety and a land of golden opportunity for immigrants. The famous words from Emma Lazarus’s poem, “The New Colossus” transformed the Statue of Liberty into a towering maternal symbol of hope and freedom for many immigrants coming to America. By the late 1880s, America had achieved a worldwide reputation as a nation offering personal freedom and unlimited opportunity. European newspapers were filled with stories that depicted America as the “golden land” where anyone could have a better life. So the poor, the oppressed and the hopeful came to America. The Lazarus poem captures this image of the spirit and promise of America.
Document 2, “The Goddess of Liberty, Answer!” is another poem that challenges “The New Colossus” sonnet’s positive view of America as the land of golden opportunity for immigrants. The poem refers to the suffering and hardships of immigrant life in America, including low wages and child labor in sweatshops, poverty, starvation and the squalid living conditions in tenement slums. It asks the “boastful” Goddess of Liberty if America is truly a land of freedom that offers a better life for immigrants, as Emma Lazarus’s poem contends.
Document 3 shows the wide-spread concern about immigration felt by many Americans in 1896. Organizations like the Immigration Restriction League supported the screening of immigrants through literacy tests in order to separate the “desirable” immigrants from the “undesirable” ones. By 1890, most of the population of the major cities in America consisted of immigrants. This provoked fear and resentment among native-born Americans, who were concerned that the growing number of immigrants from Italy and Eastern Europe would lower wages for American workers. Other anti-immigration views saw the new immigrants as inferior, the cause of urban poverty, crime and unrest and considered them incapable of becoming useful members of American society. President Cleveland directly addresses these anti-immigrant sentiments in his speech to Congress, where he strongly supports America’s immigration policy and cites the positive benefits that worthy immigrants have had on the economic growth of America, “due to the assimilation and thrift of millions of sturdy and patriotic adopted citizens”.
Document 4 is another example of deep-seated ethnic prejudices that existed even in higher government positions regarding the “new” undesirable immigrants that passed through Ellis Island at the beginning of the 20th century. They were judged to be morally and intellectually unfit for American citizenship and were blamed for urban crime, poverty, tenement slums and other social ills.
Document 5, “Contrasted Faces”, is a cartoon that reveals the fears and prejudices felt by native-born Americans at the more than 1.5 million Irish immigrants who settled in the eastern cities of the United States from 1840-1860. While businessmen welcomed the cheap labor force and politicians courted their support, Americans viewed the growing population of immigrants and the social problems it brought to American cities with alarm. The Irish immigrants were viewed as racially inferior and accused of stealing jobs from the native-born American work force. The largest single group of Irish immigrants were young, single women, who worked in factories or in domestic service. These servants were dismissively referred to by the generic names of Biddy or Bridget. Drawing the Irish immigrant with dehumanizing ape-like features was typical of the anti-Irish prejudices of the time.
Document 6 supports the fact that ethnic societies and organizations teamed up with public agencies and private philanthropic organizations to help “Americanize” the new immigrants. Progressive social reformers like Jacob Riis brought public attention to the conditions of the immigrant slums. To help with the transition into American society, immigrant groups formed close-knit ethnic communities that spoke the same language and had a common cultural heritage. Over time, the immigrants worked hard, gave their children the opportunity to receive an education and overcame seemingly insurmountable obstacles. They proved that through intelligence, perseverance and hard work, they could eventually prosper in America.

Procedure (80 minutes):

  1. Introduction of lesson, objectives, overview of SAC procedure (15 minutes)

  1. SAC group assignments (30 minutes)

    1. Assign groups of four and assign arguments to each team of two.

    2. In each group, teams read and examine the Document Packet

    3. Each student completes the Preparation part of the Capture Sheet (#2), and works with their partner to prepare their argument using supporting evidence.

    4. Students should summarize your argument in #3.

  1. Position Presentation (10 minutes)

    1. Team 1 presents their position using supporting evidence recorded and summarized on the Preparation part of the Capture Sheet (#2 & #3) on the Preparation matrix. Team 2 records Team 1’s argument in #4.

    2. Team 2 restates Team 1’s position to their satisfaction.

    3. Team 2 asks clarifying questions and records Team 1’s answers.

    4. Team 2 presents their position using supporting evidence recorded and summarized on the Preparation part of the Capture Sheet (#2 & #3) on the Preparation matrix. Team 1 records Team 2’s argument in #4.

    5. Team 1 restates Team 2’s position to their satisfaction.

    6. Team 1 asks clarifying questions and records Team 2’s answers.

  1. Consensus Building (10 minutes)

    1. Team 1 and 2 put their roles aside.

    2. Teams discuss ideas that have been presented, and figure out where they can agree or where they have differences about the historical question

  1. Closing the lesson (15 minutes)

    1. Whole-group Discussion

    2. Make connection to unit

    3. Assessment (suggested writing activity addressing the question)

Document 1
The New Colossus” is an inspirational poem that was composed in 1883 by Emma Lazarus as a fundraiser for the building of the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty. She was acquainted with the challenges of Eastern European immigrants through her association with the Hebrew Emigrant Aid Society. Her poem expressed her belief that America was a land of freedom and opportunity for the “huddled masses” of immigrants who came through “the golden door.” In 1903, the poem was placed on the base of the Statue of Liberty.

“New Collossus” by Emma Lazarus
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of exiles. From her beacon-hand

Glows worldwide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”


brazen: Bold, with no fear of danger

limbs: Arms or Legs

astride: With legs on either side of something

torch: A flaming light that can be carried in a hand

exiles: People living in a country other than his or her own

beacon: Signal light

ancient: Old

huddled: Crowded together

masses: Crowds of people

yearning: Wanting

wretched: Miserable

refuse: Garbage

teeming: Full of

tempest: Violent storm

Source: The Library of Congress exhibit on ‘A Century of Immigration, 1820-1924’.

Document 2
The poem, “Goddess of Liberty, Answer” by Ella Wheeler Wilcox is considered to be a response to Emma Lazarus’s poem, “The New Colossus”. The poem refers to the actual suffering and hardships of immigrant life in America, including low wages and child labor in sweatshops, poverty, starvation and horrible living conditions. It asks the Goddess of Liberty if America is truly a land of freedom that offers a better life for immigrants.

Goddess of Liberty, listen! Listen. I say, and look
To the sounds and sights of sorrow this side of Sandy Hook!
Your eye is searching the distance, you are holding your torch too high
To see the slaves who are fettered, though close at your feet they lie.
And the cry of the suffering stranger has reached your ear and your breast,
But you do not heed the wail that comes from the haunts of your own oppressed.

Goddess of Liberty, follow, follow me where I lead;

Come down into sweat-shops and look on the work of greed!
Look on the faces of children, old before they were born!
Look on the haggard women of all sex graces shorn!
Look on the men—God, help us! if this is what it means
To be men in the land of freedom and live like mere machines!

Goddess of Liberty, answer! how can the slaves of Spain

Find freedom under your banner, while your own still wear the chain?
Loud is the screech of your eagle and boastful the voice of your drums,
But they do not silence the wail of despair that rises out of your slums.
What will you do with your conquests, and how shall your hosts be fed,
While your streets are filled with desperate throngs, crying for work or bread?


fettered: Tied-up

heed: Listen

wail: Cry in grief or distress

oppressed: Treated cruelly

haggard: Tired looking

slum: Place where poor people live in overcrowded, dirty and unhealthy conditions

hosts: Large number (of people)

throngs: Crowds (of people)

Source: Ella Wheeler Wilcox, “Goddess of Liberty, Answer”, poem, in Heath Anthology of American Literature, 2006.

Document 3
In 1896, Congress passes a literacy requirement immigration bill, which was supported by the Immigrant Restriction League. President Grover Cleveland vetoed the bill. In the following modified excerpt from his response to Congress, Cleveland argues against the negative view of immigration. Twenty years later, a literacy requirement would be included as part of the Immigration Act of 1917.

**…We have welcomed all who came to us from other lands, except those whose moral or physical conditions or history were dangerous to our national welfare and safety…we have encouraged those coming from foreign countries…to join in the development of America and…share in the blessings of American citizenship.

We have had a century of stupendous growth, largely due to the assimilation and thrift of millions of sturdy and patriotic adopted citizens. It shows the success of an immigration policy that requires immigrants to have physical and moral soundness and a willingness and ability to work.

It is said, however, that the quality of recent immigration is undesirable…The same thing was once said of immigrants who, with their descendants, are now among our best citizens.

The best reason…for restriction of immigration is to protect our population from degeneration and to save our national peace and quiet from turbulence and disorder.

…we would not be protected against these evils by limiting immigration to those who can read and write 25 words of our Constitution in any language.

**(modified version)


moral: Having to do with what is right and wrong

welfare: Happiness, success, good living conditions

stupendous: Extraordinary, large

assimilation: Part of something

thrift: Not wasteful

soundness: Good health

undesirable: Not wanted

descendant: Someone who has a certain person as an ancestor

degeneration: The loss of good qualities

turbulence: Lack of control

Source: Grover Cleveland, “President Cleveland Vetoes a Law Restricting Immigration”,

Document 4
The Immigration Restriction League of Boston reprinted extracts from the 1903 report of the Commissioner-General of Immigration. His negative description of the character of the “new” immigration at the beginning of the 20th century supported the League’s anti-immigration views.

**…The greatest amount of present immigration comes from the most undesirable populations of Italy, Austria and Russia. No one would object to a better class of Italians, Austrians and Russians coming here in large numbers, but they are not the ones who come…Immigration from Germany and the British Isles has decreased.

…Past immigration was good because the right kind of people went to the right places…Businesses cannot employ all of the alien material that comes through Ellis Island every year…yet immigrants choose to settle in the crowded tenement districts of New York.

…By strictly following our present laws, we can keep out the worst foreigners from Europe (paupers, diseased persons and those likely to become public charges)…These laws are most valuable…but do not affect a large amount of immigrants who are also undesirable because they are unintelligent, have low vitality, poor physiques and are only able to do the cheapest kind of manual labor…They want to live only in the cities, compete for jobs that reduce the standard of living of American workers and are not mentally or morally fit for good citizenship.

**(modified version)


tenement: A rundown and crowded apartment building in a city

paupers: A person too poor to support himself/herself

public charges: A person who can’t work and needs government aid to survive

vitality: Energy

physique: Body Type

manual labor: Unskilled physical Work

Source: Immigration Restriction League, “The Commissioner-General of Immigration Describe “New” Immigration” in HERB by ASHP, item #782,

Document 5
In his illustration of “Contrasted Faces”, the illustrator, Samuel R. Wells, negatively depicts an Irish ethnic stereotype of “Bridget McBruiser”. She is drawn with animal-like features and a dirty, slovenly appearance. This is shown in sharp contrast with the elegantly dressed and beautiful Anglo-Saxon features of Florence Nightingale, a famous and admired nurse of the Crimean War.

Source: Samuel R. Wells, “An Illustrator Depicts Irish Ethnic Stereotype”, in HERB by ASHP, item #1224,

Document 6
In 1926, the New York Department of Immigrant Aid and the Immigration Assistance Section of the National Council of Jewish Women created a citizenship guide for women that was published in both English and Yiddish. The Council helped unmarried Jewish women immigrants learn English, become citizens and find employment.

Source: “What Every Woman Should Know About Citizenship”, A Century of Immigration, 1820-1924, Library of Congress Exhibit.


  1. Don’t forget the rules of a successful academic controversy!

    1. Practice active listening.

    2. Challenge ideas, not each other

    3. Try your best to understand the other positions

    4. Share the floor: each person in a pair MUST have an opportunity to speak

    5. No disagreeing until consensus-building as a group of four

Insert Historical Question


  1. Highlight your assigned position.

Yes: Americans welcomed new immigrants.

No: King George III was harsh in his treatment of the colonists.

  1. Read through each document searching for support for your side’s argument. Use the documents to fill in the chart (Hint: Not all documents support your side, find those that do):

    Document #

    What is the main idea of this document?

    What details support your position?

  2. Work with your partner to summarize your arguments for your position using the supporting documents you found above:

Position Presentation:

  1. You and your partner will present your position to your opposing group members. When you are done, you will then listen to your opponents’ position.

While you are listening to your opponents’ presentation, write down the main details that they present here:

Clarifying questions I have for the opposing partners:

How they answered the questions:

Consensus Building:

  1. Put your assigned roles aside. Where does your group stand on the question? Where does your group agree? Where does your group disagree? Your consensus answer does not have to be strictly yes, or no.

We agree:

We disagree:

Our final consensus:

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