In 1923, Bethlehem Steel president Eugene Grace negotiated a contract labor agreement with the Mexican Consulate for the recruitment of a Mexican labor force. The issues surrounding this event echo many of the same arguments and problems of the modern-day immigration debate.This unit explores the circumstances surrounding Bethlehem Steel’s recruitment of Mexican labor.
Mexican immigration stirs widespread public debate, fuels political tension, and triggers reexamination of a nation’s history and cultural identity. In addition to the perceived threat to American culture posed by a rise of non-English-speaking immigrants, defenders of immigration restrictions argue that American workers are negatively impacted by foreign laborers who drive down wages or replace the native-born workers. On the other side, businesses plead that fields will lay in ruin or industries will need to scale back production due to labor shortages if immigration is restricted.
When federal restrictions in 1921 limited the immigration of eastern and southern Europeans, many businesses, including Bethlehem Steel, sought to tap into the largely unrestricted labor source that the agricultural sector of the southwest had relied upon for many years. Congress and big business engaged in a tug-of-war over immigration policy with respect to Mexican immigrants. Businesses pushed for leniency due to widespread labor shortages, while those in favor of limits lashed out claiming that businesses undermined laws for the sake of a cheap labor supply. Ultimately, businesses won the battle and obtained a temporary suspension of immigration laws for Mexican laborers. Bethlehem Steel’s Eugene Grace even obtained a suspension of an 1885 contract labor ban so that he could negotiate his contract with the Mexican Consulate.
These lesson plans serve as a way for students to understand, connect, and critique issues surrounding early 20th-century and current Mexican immigration. Placed in the larger historical context, Bethlehem Steel’s recruitment of Mexican labor sheds light on early immigration laws, explores the changing role of Mexican laborers in the United States, and provides valuable perspective that allows students to better understand and assess contemporary Mexican immigration. Worthy of further exploration is how issues raised in this lesson such as global conflict, national security, and economic necessity shaped and continue to shape American immigration policy.