Roleplay: Immigration Fiction and Fact

Through roleplays and small group work, students consider erroneous claims about immigration and learn facts to counter them.  

To the teacher: 

This activity includes two roleplays in which the players argue about immigration -and make a number of false or questionable claims along the way. After the roleplays, students read a fact sheet and reconsider the roleplay arguments in light of the new information.

Please read these guidelines for discussing controversial issues before taking on this sensitive issue in your classroom. Consider how students from immigrant families may be affected by the roleplay and discussion.

To prepare for the activity, print out enough copies of this pdf fact sheet for everyone in the class. (The fact sheet is also included at the bottom of this lesson.) Also print out the roleplays below for four student players. 

Roleplay Activity

Tell students that today we’re going to watch two roleplays in which people will be arguing about immigration in the U.S. Then we’ll learn some facts about immigration and apply them to the arguments the players made in the roleplays.

You might want to give all students a heads up that the opinions represented in the roleplays may be upsetting to some. These opinions are not necessarily those of the people acting in the play. Instead, the roleplay is intended for us all to learn more about immigration, and be better prepared to have conversations with people who might differ from us on important issues. 

Ask for four volunteers to roleplay the roles of Mike and Alicia in front of the class. (One pair will play Mike and Alicia in Roleplay 1, the other will play Mike and Alicia in Roleplay 2.)  Give the players the appropriate roleplay script below, and give them time to read it in advance.

Before beginning Roleplay 1, remind the class that these two students are going to be voicing the opinions of characters that they may or may not agree with.


Roleplay 1

Mike: This country has got to get control of our borders.

Alicia:  What do you mean?  

Mike:  I mean all these people pouring into the country - you know, immigrants.

Alicia:  Most people in this country are immigrants - or descended from them. Didn’t your ancestors immigrate here at some point?

Mike:  Well, my ancestors came a long time ago.  Besides, it’s not totally a nation of immigrants. Lots of people have ancestors who were forced to come here as slaves. And then there are Native Americans...

Alicia:  That's true. How about your ancestors? Where did they come from?

Mike: Umm, they were mostly Irish and Italian. They came over in the 1800s, I think.  There was a famine in Ireland...

Alicia:  Right, they were probably really desperate. Just like a lot of the immigrants who come here now. And just like now, a lot of Americans were probably telling them to go back where they came from.  

Mike:  I don’t think so. I mean, my ancestors came here to work. They helped build the country.

Alicia:  And you think that’s not true of immigrants now?

Mike:  Well, first of all, there are a lot more people coming into the country now. And I heard that most of the immigrants now are coming in illegally from Mexico.  And that most of them have no education and a lot of them are involved in crime.

Alicia:  I don’t think any of the things you just said are true. 

Mike:  Well, that’s what I heard.

STOP ACTION.  Thank the first pair of players and ask them to rejoin the class.

Ask:  What claims did Mike and Alicia make that could be verified or refuted with facts?

Work with students to develop a list of claims and write them down on the board under the title, "Assertions to verify or refute - Roleplay 1." The list might include:

  • Past immigrants, including from European countries like Ireland and Italy, were often not welcomed by native born Americans.
  • There are more immigrants now than in past waves of immigration.
  • Many immigrants are undocumented. 
  • Most immigrants come from Mexico.
  • Most immigrants have little or no education.
  • Many immigrants are involved in crime

Next, invite the second pair of players to begin roleplay 2.  Once again, remind the class that these two students are going to be voicing the opinions of characters that they may or may not agree with.


Roleplay 2

Mike:  The biggest reason we have to protect our borders is that all these immigrants are hurting the economy.

Alicia: I don’t know what you’re talking about!

Mike:  I read that a lot of the people who immigrate here are coming to take advantage of all our benefits, like healthcare. And since they don’t pay taxes, everybody else has to pay the cost.   

Alicia:  Where did you read that? And why wouldn’t they be paying taxes?

Mike:  And they’re taking jobs away from Americans who’ve been here forever. Plus, they take jobs for really low wages, and that drags down wages for everybody else.

Alicia:  Well, if we increased the minimum wage, employers couldn’t do that. And if they could join unions, that would help bring their wages up too.  

Mike:  Yeah, but a lot of the people I’m talking about are here illegally. That makes it harder for them to fight for that stuff.

Alicia: Exactly! That’s one reason why we should let undocumented people become citizens. 

Mike: Whoa! Don’t you think it’s wrong to let people who got here illegally to just stay here?  That’s not fair to all the other people who followed the rules.

Alicia: Hmm. That depends on whether the rules are fair!  A lot of undocumented people have been living in the U.S. for years. They’ve been working and contributing to the economy. And a lot of them have kids who were born here. Do you think that moms and dads should be forced to leave their kids?  That’s just mean.

Mike:  I didn’t say that!  

STOP ACTION.  Thank the players and ask them to rejoin the class.

Ask:  What claims did Mike and Alicia make that could be verified or refuted with facts?  Once again, work with students to develop a list of claims and write them down on the board under the title, "Assertions to verify or refute - Roleplay 2." The list might include:

  • Immigrants are taking jobs away from native-born Americans and causing rising unemployment.
  • Immigrants are driving down wages.
  • Immigrants use many benefits, yet often don’t pay taxes that help pay for those benefits.
  • Many undocumented workers have lived here for many years.
  • They’ve been working and contributing to the economy.
  • Many undocumented immigrants have family in the U.S.




Ask both sets of students who played Mike and Alicia:

  • What did it feel like to play your part?
  • What feelings or thoughts came up for you?

Ask the rest of the class:

  • What was it like to watch this roleplay?
  • What feelings or thoughts came up for you?
  • Did you want to intervene in the discussion at any point?  When and why?



Checking the Facts

Next, give students copies of the fact sheet below, and ask them to form groups of four or five (by counting off, if necessary). Give students several minutes to read the fact sheets in their groups.  

Then ask students to look at the two lists of assertions you wrote on the board.  Ask each group to go through each list point by point, and use information from the fact sheet to address any of the facts that they can.

What arguments would they make for each assertion, if they had been in the discussion with Mike and Alicia?  The group should make a list of these arguments to share with the class.  As they move through the assertions, students should also keep a joint list of any questions that come up that the fact sheets don’t answer.

Reconvene the full class and go through the disputed facts one by one. For each point, ask a student from each group to share responses their group came up with, giving priority to any response that has not already been mentioned by another group.

Ask students:

  • What facts stand out for you?  What facts do you wish more people knew?
  • Did the discussion raise questions for you that weren’t addressed in the fact sheet? What were they? Compile a list of these for further research.
  • Do you question any of the facts on the fact sheet?  If so, how might you answer your questions? Make a list of these for further research.
  • Facts are valuable, but sometimes people aren’t persuaded by facts.  Do you think Mike or Alicia would be persuaded by the facts we discussed? Why or why not?





Immigration Facts: Roleplay 1  (also see this pdf version)

  • Irish immigrants, including the thousands who came to the U.S. to escape famine in the 1840s, were hated by many of the people who were already living in the U.S. They were ostracized and denied employment for being Catholic, and stereotyped as angry, illiterate, greedy alcoholics. (University of Virginia American Studies)
  • Italian immigrants were once thought by some Americans to be so alien to American culture that they could never be assimilated. (Public Radio International.) After 11 Italian immigrants were lynched in New Orleans in 1891, the New York Times defended this mass murder:
These sneaking and cowardly Sicilians, the descendants of bandits and assassins, who have transported to this country the lawless passions, the cut-throat practices, and the oath-bound societies of their native country, are to us a pest without mitigation. Our own rattlesnakes are as good citizens as they...  Lynch law was the only course open to the people of New Orleans to stay the issue of a new license to the Mafia to continue its bloody practices."
  • In 2012, about 13 percent of the U.S. population were immigrants (that is, people born in another country). This percentage has increased over the past decade, but is less than it was in 1890, when 15 percent of the population was foreign born.  (U.S. Census Bureau)
  • Only about a quarter of immigrants in the U.S. are undocumented (meaning that they don’t have the permission of the federal government to be here). The number of undocumented people has stayed fairly stable, and has declined somewhat since 2007. (Pew Research Center)
  • U.S. immigrants come from all over the world. Currently, about 28% came from  Mexico (over 11 million people). Other top countries for immigrants include China (2 million), India (2 million), Philippines (2 million), and over 1 million each from Vietnam, El Salvador, Cuba, and Korea.  (U.S. Census Bureau)
  • Asians recently surpassed Latinos as the fastest-growing group of new immigrants to the U.S. (Pew Research Center) 
  • Immigrants have a wide range of education levels. Nearly 70 percent have a high school diploma or higher. Nearly 12 percent have an advanced degree (Masters degree, doctorate, etc.) - which is higher than the percentage of native-born Americans with an advanced degree.  ("Statistical Portrait of the Foreign-Born Population in the United States," 2012)
  • Less than one in five immigrants live in poverty. More than half of immigrants in the U.S. are homeowners, compared to 65 percent of all Americans.  ("Statistical Portrait of the Foreign-Born Population in the United States" and U.S. Census Bureau)
  • The great majority of working age immigrants--including undocumented immigrants—work and pay taxes.  Undocumented workers participate in the workforce more than the population at large. (Pew Research Center)
  • Studies have consistently shown that documented immigrants use social programs such as Medicaid and Supplemental Security Income at similar rates to native households.  (Center for American Progress)
  • Undocumented workers pay billions of dollars in taxes annually - even though they are generally not able to receive the public services they are paying for with their taxes. (Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy)
  • Immigrants are less likely to commit crimes or be incarcerated than native-born Americans.  (Immigration Policy Center) 

Immigration Facts: Roleplay 2

  •  Immigrants do not generally compete with native-born American workers for jobs. Instead, immigrants tend to complement skill sets of American workers, according to research by leading economists.  (Center for American Progress)
  • Some economists have estimated that the annual income of undocumented workers would be 15% higher within five years if they were granted legal status, and that raising their wages would lead to a significant increase in the earnings of all Americans. (Center for American Progress) However, such findings are disputed by those who support stricter immigration laws.
  • The Congressional Budget Office estimated that allowing undocumented immigrants a pathway to citizenship would reduce the U.S. budget deficit by billions of dollars. This is because they would be earning more and so would pay more taxes, including the payroll taxes that support Social Security and other important benefits.
  • The majority of undocumented immigrants are long-term residents of the United States. The median length of residence is 13 years. "Median" means that half were here less than 13 years, and half were here more than 13 years. (Pew Research Center)
  • Nearly half of the undocumented population has children under 18, many of them born in the United States.  (Pew Research Center)
  • 3.8 million undocumented immigrants have children who are American citizens. (Pew Research Center)