We Are Here from 271 Films on Vimeo.

Civic Issue

As of 2018, 13.7% of the population of the United States was born outside of the country. People have and continue to come to the United States for a variety of reasons including to seek economic stability, join family, and to flee persecution. In many instances, the people who make it to the United States come from regions and countries that have been affected by US economic and political involvement. As a result of federal immigration restrictions, approximately 23% of the people who immigrated to the United States as of 2018 came without authorization. However, national restrictions and limitations on immigration have not always existed.  According to historian Mae Ngai, “You just showed up…You didn’t need a passport, you didn’t need a visa. There was no such thing as a visa.”

19th and 20th Century laws restricting immigration

The passage of restrictive federal immigration laws in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries created “illegal” immigration but did not stop people from coming. The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act specifically excluded Chinese laborers and was the exception until the passage of the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act, which limited immigration and gave preference to western European immigrants. Even then, “those more-favored European immigrants entered the country illegally — exceeding or avoiding the quotas entirely — they were very often forgiven.” 

The 1965 Hart-Cellar Act passed by Congress eliminated the quota preferences for European immigrants but still capped immigration. While it did contribute to greater racial diversity in the United States it also did “not provide for immigration by “unskilled” workers in sectors like agriculture, construction, and domestic service, [which] fostered a growing population of unauthorized immigrants who are gainfully employed but lack lawful means to immigrate.” The Hart-Cellar Act resulted in more people of color immigrating to the United States from the Global South while also hardening the line between “legal” and “illegal” immigration.

Undocumented Americans today

The short film, “We Are Here,” explores life for those without documentation who live, work, and participate in their communities. Centering the voices and experiences of undocumented young people, the film highlights the consequences of restrictive immigration legislation such as the 1965 Hart-Cellar Act. What follows are suggestions for teaching about this film using the Re-Imagining Migration Learning Arc which provides a structure for talking and teaching about migration in ways that promote empathy, understanding, perspective-taking, and civic empowerment.

Connection to the Re-Imagining Migration Learning Arc: 

Moving Stories

  • What can we learn from the many visible and invisible stories of migration around us?

The Journey

  • In what ways are people’s migration stories similar and different from one another?
  • How do the visible and invisible borders that people encounter shape their lives?
  • How can borders work in an ethical way?


  • How might the environment in the new land help or hinder newcomers’ inclusion?

Turning to Action

  • How might we use our voice and spheres of influence to create and sustain inclusive and welcoming societies? 
  • What are the rights of people with an uncertain status?

Teaching Objectives and Learning Outcomes

  • Students will deepen their understanding of the experiences of young people who live in the United States but do not have documentation,
  • Students will reflect on how immigration restriction has changed over the twentieth century and how the experiences of those in the US today without authorization differ from those of many immigrants to the US before 1965.
  • Considering the changes and continuities between past and present, students will be poised to reflect on their own roles in creating supportive and welcoming communities.

Resources for the Lesson

Essential and Guiding Questions

  • What are the rights of people with an uncertain status?
  • How and why has the restriction of immigration to the US changed from the early twentieth century to today? What have been the effects?
  • Citizenship is often viewed as bestowed by a nation’s government. How else might one conceptualize citizenship and belonging in the United States

Teaching Ideas:

  • To begin, share with students that you will be watching a short film that highlights the voices of young immigrants discussing their experiences. 
  • Ask students to take notes during and/or after watching the film, using the What makes you say that? thinking routine.
  • Invite students to share their observations and explanations with a group. 
  • Independent work: Have students watch the video and answer the questions after watching: Undocumented migrants have come to the U.S. for centuries. Why do we treat them differently today? 
    1. How were rules and processes for immigration different 100 years ago from today?
    2. What are the main important differences between immigrants arriving in the early 20th century compared to today’s immigrants? 
    3. Use the thinking routine- Same-Different-Gain to summarize student ideas
      1. What is the same about immigration then and now?
      2. What is the difference about immigration then and now?
      3. What do we gain from this knowledge and/or information?
  • Use the Connect – Extend – Challenge thinking routine to facilitate students connecting what they have read to their prior knowledge. Invite students to discuss their responses with a neighbor. 
  • Using the Circles of Action thinking routine, ask students to reflect on how they can contribute to creating supportive and welcoming communities for those immigrating to the United States.

Additional Resource Links:


This resource was written by Elisabeth Macias and Abeer Ramadan-Shinnawi

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