Indentured Servitude and Immigration

The lesson focuses on issues of immigration and on the problems and difficulties faced by immigrants as they wrestle with the dilemma of leaving their country due to economic conditions and other hardships.  The lesson lets students experience how immigrants examine their current situation and deal with making the decision to immigrate to the United States. 
Grade Level


At the end of the lesson, students will be able to:

  • Discuss the correlation between indentured servitude in the early American colonies and undocumented immigration today;
  • List the sacrifices people are willing to make to leave their countries and come to the United States. Identify the push factors (poverty, famine, etc.) and pull factors (religious freedom, better quality of life) of immigration in colonial times and the world today;
  • Discuss, debate, and share ideas using problem-solving and decision-making techniques.
Essential Questions
  • What sacrifices are people willing to make to come to the United States? Why might people be willing to make those sacrifices?
  • In what ways does indentured servitude exist today?
  • Enduring Understandings
    • Many people make sacrifices when they leave their homes and go to another country.
    • The experiences of indentured servants in early American colonies are similar in many ways to the experiences of undocumented immigrants in the United States today.


indenture [ inˈden ch ər ] (verb) to bind, as an apprentice

indentured servant [ inˈden ch ərd  sər vənt ] (noun) a person who is bonded or contracted to work for another for a specified time, in exchange for learning a trade or for travel expenses (as to America)

immigration [ i-mə-ˈgrā-shən ] (noun) the process of entering and becoming established in a country of which one is not a native for permanent residence

undocumented [ \ən-ˈdä-kyə-men-təd ] (adjective) not having the official documents that are needed to enter, live in, or work in a country


Suggested Procedure

Begin by asking every student to make a list of all the possible answers to the following question: For what reasons do people come to the United States? Invite students to take several minutes to generate a list, writing down their reasons.

Give students the following instructions:

1. Team up with a partner. Review your lists and explain how you arrived at your answers. Afterward, combine your lists and sort them into categories. Possible categories could be Economic Reasons, Political Reasons, Social Reasons, etc. Discuss the following question: Which is the most common reason—economic, political, social—that leads people to immigrate to the United States? Why did you choose that one?

2. Next, join another pair of students to form a group of four. Take turns sharing each other’s examples. Discuss whether the reasons have varied over the course of American history or whether the reasons have generally stayed the same.

3. Your same group of four should now read Handout 1: Josiah—1620. After all group members have read the handout, review and talk about its questions. Individually, list three to five reasons why Josiah should become an indentured servant and move to the New World. Then, list three to five reasons why Josiah should not become an indentured servant and move to the New World.

4. Next, read Handout 3: Diego—2004. After everyone in your group has read this handout, review together the questions you find there.

5. Tell students, “When everyone is done, we will have a class discussion of these two questions: How different is Diego’s life from Josiah’s? How similar is it? Together, we will brainstorm a list of three to five reasons why Diego should “take the journey to the North, and three to five reasons why Diego should not take that journey.”

6. Say, “Next, in your groups of four, two students should read Handout 2: What Josiah Didn’t Know and answer the questions, and the other two read Handout 4: What Diego Didn’t Know and answer the questions. Then, share what you learned from the handout to your group, so everyone understands what you read.”

7. Next, instruct the class that each group should discuss the following questions:

How similar is the difficulty of Josiah’s journey to Diego’s?

How similar are their experiences upon reaching the United States?

Which traveler would have faced more adversity, Josiah or Diego? Why?

8. Shuffle the earlier groups of four to form teams of six members, with half supporting Diego and half supporting Josiah. Tell each team that they must defend their position —whether Josiah or Diego faced a more difficult situation in his home country, in the journey to America, and/or once he reached the United States. Say this to the teams: “Briefly meet with your side to share what you know, and develop a strategy for the debate. Get ready for the debate; but, instead of debating, switch sides and now become supporters of the other perspective/position. After your group shares what you already know of the other side’s perspective/position, work to reach an agreement through compromise. Write a brief summary of your outcome.”


Optional Assessment 

Ask students to write a 300-500 word reflection on how their views on immigration changed or didn’t change throughout the course of this lesson. Remind them to use facts and examples they learned in the lesson to support their statements.

Alignment to Common Core State Standards/ College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards CCSS R.1, R.3,W.1, W.2, W.7, W.9, SL.1, SL.4 


Extension Activity

Do Something

Research Guest Worker Programs in the United States (Bracero Program) and in Europe where there are several such programs. Generate questions to guide your research, think about what you want to know or what you find interesting about Guest Worker Programs. Throughout your research, document the process. Decide on what is the best way to exhibit or demonstrate what you learned, and share your final product with your class.

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