Ellis Island closed in 1954, but second-graders at Riley School in Arlington Heights experienced all of its uncertainties and tension firsthand earlier this month.
Dressed in old-fashioned shawls and hats, and clutching their passports while juggling cardboard boxes that served as their suitcases, the students filed through processing and inspection stations -- to be approved, detained or deported.
"Why did the government have to shut down Ellis Island, when it was working so well?" says 8-year-old Jack Cadre of Arlington Heights, an Irish immigrant during the re-enactment.
The Ellis Island simulation opened a unit exploring immigration for these students and also for seventh-grade students at London Middle School in Wheeling, all part of Wheeling Township Elementary District 21.
Their teachers -- Melisa Zawadzki and Karyn Zima at Riley, and Alison Friedman from London -- developed the unit together as a way to examine real-life immigration issues and ultimately make their recommendations for a fair path to citizenship.
Already during their studies, the students have learned about the DREAM Act and watched videos of U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin and John McCain's recent proposals on immigration reform.
"Through this research, the children are learning what laws are in effect today," Friedman says, "in order to decide what their problems are and why legislators are working to change them."
Riley Principal Carrie McCulley says the unit represents a growing trend in education, which goes beyond studying timely issues.
"We're trying to provide more authentic learning experiences for kids," McCulley said.
Studying immigration also hits close to home, their teachers said. At Riley School alone, nearly one-third of the students are Hispanic, with another 13 percent are Asian, and many others speak Russian or Polish at home.
"Many of our students this year are first generation or weren't born in the United States, so immigration is very real to them," Zawadzki says.
"Through this unit, our hope is that they will have a better understanding and have opinions and possibly new ideas on how things can change."
After their Ellis Island experience, students interviewed state Rep. Elaine Nekritz, who explained how laws are made and how difficult it is to change them.
One week later, they interviewed Chicago Alderman Joe Moreno, one of the youngest aldermen in the city. He has debated immigration issues nationally, but for this young audience he dialed back his remarks, recounting his own family's experience.
Moreno described how his grandparents came from Mexico, illegally, in search of a better life. His grandfather fought in World War II and upon being discharged in 1947, still was denied citizenship.
"Talking about immigration is very personal to me," Moreno told them. "We are a country of immigrants. If we want to be the United States of America, with the Statue of Liberty that greets people in New York Harbor, we have to be open to welcoming people."
Their studies will continue into April. In the meantime, the teachers are working with the U.S. Department of Citizenship and Immigration Services about setting up a Citizenship Ceremony at one of the schools.
Margaret Hulligan, PTO president at Riley School, also hopes to draw more speakers. She is in touch with officials from Durbin's and Sen. Mark Kirk's offices as well as with Rep. Tammy Duckworth's staff.
Ultimately, the students will write up, and submit to lawmakers, their own proposed immigration reform.