Recognizing the Undocumented

This lesson features activities that will make students aware of the roles that undocumented immigrants play in the harvest and processing of food and other necessary products and help them understand the status of and choices that face undocumented workers in our country.
Grade Level


Students will be able to:

  • Identify the industries in their own communities and regions that may hire undocumented workers
  • Understand the roles those workers play in the American economy
  • Comprehend the circumstances under which many of these people work
  • Separate facts from the myths that cling to the issue of undocumented workers
  • Track legislation related to this issue over the past 50 years
Essential Questions
  • What is the role of undocumented workers in our society?
  • What are the obstacles that keep them from legal status?
  • What are the circumstances under which they work?
  • What is the government doing about this issue?


“anchor baby” [ank-uhr bay-bee] (noun) crude term for a child born in the United States to undocumented parents; some claim the child’s role is to make immigration and permanent residency easier for those parents

asylum [uh-sahy-luhm] (noun) a temporary refuge that is granted to a political offender; the person is referred to as an asylee [uh-sahy-lee]

diversity visa [dih-vuhr-si-tee vee-suh] (noun) a “green card” lottery that is run by the State Department for people from underrepresented regions in the United States

employer petition [ehm-ploy-uhr puh-tih-shun] (noun) a form filed by an employer wishing to hire a foreign national to work in the United States on a permanent basis

permanent residency [puhr-muh-nent rehz-uh-duhn-see] (noun) a visa status that allows a person to live indefinitely in the United States, regardless of his or her citizenship

provision [pruh-vizh-uhn] (noun) a clause in a legal document

undocumented [uhn-dock-yuh-men-tid] (adjective) lacking proper immigration or working papers


Separating Fact From Myth

1. In the SPLC report Injustice on Our Plates, the undocumented workers interviewed often describe themselves as “invisible.” But they serve a very important role in almost every community. Brainstorm the industries that predominate in your community or region. Is it heavily agricultural, with large farms that grow, harvest, and ship fruits and vegetables? Does it include beef, pork or chicken processing facilities? Is it a growth area, with lots of construction and a need for manual laborers? Are there large garment manufacturers in your community or region? What service industries benefit the population? As you brainstorm, create a profile of the economic engines that drive your region. What role do you think undocumented workers might play in your community’s economy?

2. Many Americans are not well-informed about what drives workers from Mexico and many Latin American nations to the United States, and what forces often block them from receiving legal status. As a class, you will investigate the four major ways that—under our current system—people can obtain lawful permanent residency. Divide your class into four working groups, with each choosing one of the following:

  • A family relationship with a U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident
  • An employer petition for lawful permanent residency
  • Refugee or asylee status
  • A diversity visa, commonly known as “The Lottery”

3. Using Reading 1: The Blocked Path and other resources—either in print or online—research your group’s chosen path to legal residency. Choose your resources wisely so that you can present facts, rather than myths or political talking points.

4. Within your group, share what you’ve learned in one of the following ways: Present a conversation between two people, write an FAQ (frequently asked questions) for a classroom wiki on the issue, create a rap song that incorporates the information, or write a one-act play that dramatizes the choice and its consequences.

5. As a class, share what was learned from each of the groups. What does this exercise tell you about the current status of undocumented workers? What does it tell you about what could be done?


In Their Own Words

1. Reading 2 features a profile of “Sara,” who left Mexico a decade ago for what she thought would be a better life in the United States. In pairs or small groups, read the profile.

2. As you read, highlight all of the adjectives. An adjective is a word that describes, changes or adds to the meaning of a noun. As an example, the first paragraph refers to Sara’s “youthful urge to travel.” In this case, “youthful” is the adjective. Check your work with others in the group.

3. Within your group, make a list of the adjectives you’ve highlighted. Discuss: What story do the words tell? Does that story sound like one that should happen in modern-day America? Why or why not? Share your reactions. (Note: Highlighted words should include: youthful, pretty, richer, hard, poor, free, difficult, barbed, uncaring, physical, abusive, cruel, fast, butchered, sharp, scratched, dull, scorching, near-freezing, extreme, bad, battered, crowded, swollen, challenging, cold, dangerous, fast-moving, unrelenting, impossible, gnarled, rusty and self-perpetuating.)

4. Sara’s profile ends with her statement: “You suffer to come. Then once you’re here, you suffer some more.” On your own, write a journal entry that reflects on her statement. What is your reaction to her story? What outcome do you imagine for her? What outcome would you wish for her? Make use of strong adjectives to convey your feelings and opinions.


Past to the Present

1. In 1960, CBS broadcast a documentary called “Harvest of Shame.” Narrated by journalist Edward R. Murrow, the program highlighted the plight of migrant agricultural workers in America. In his closing words, Murrow said:

“The migrants have no lobby. Only an enlightened, aroused and perhaps angered public opinion can do anything about the migrants. The people you have seen have the strength to harvest your fruit and vegetables. They do not have the strength to influence legislation.”

Using print or online sources, research the following: When did the program air? Why was that particular day chosen? What spurred the report? What was the reaction of viewers? As a class, discuss your findings.

2. Break into five groups. Within each of your groups and using print or online resources, research the legislation and policy related to immigration, and specifically to low-skilled laborers (e.g., undocumented workers) in one of the following decades:

  • 1960 to 1970
  • 1970 to 1980
  • 1980 to 1990
  • 1990 to 2000
  • 2000 to 2010

(Note: Be sure that students choose objective sources for their research on immigration policy and legislation. Many, including the Center for Immigration Studies, include biases.)

The following online resources are a good start for your research:

PBS Frontline U.S. Immigration Policy Time line

The Flow of History Immigration Time line

In your group, record the name of the legislation, the year in which it was introduced and passed, what it was meant to accomplish and its current status.

3. As a class, share the research of each group. Then construct a classroom time line of the 50-year period that shows each piece of legislation in chronological order. The time line may take the form of the Rio Grande, an assembly line or other thematic graphic. It can also be displayed as a print time line or computer-generated time line that becomes part of your wiki on the issue.

4. As a class, discuss what your time line shows. In the past 50 years, has there been progress in bettering the daily lives of undocumented workers? Has U.S. immigration policy been able to supply the labor needed by employers? What progress has been made in carving legitimate paths to citizenship?

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