Henderson v. Mayor of the City of New York

The Case: U.S. Supreme Court decision on federal power over immigration

Date: Decided on October 1, 1875

Significance: Based on Congress’s exclusive authority to regulate international commerce, which included the landing of passengers, the Henderson decision had the effect of striking down all state laws regulating immigration.

The attempt of states to impose various kinds of taxes on immigrants and other passengers entering the United States was a controversial issue for many decades during the nineteenth century. In several decisions, including Cooley v. Board of Wardens of the Port of Philadelphia (1852), the Supreme Court held that the commerce clause prohibited the states from passing laws that placed a burden on Congress’s power to maintain national uniformity in regulating international commerce. As the number of immigrants increased in the post-Civil War years, many Americans were concerned about an alleged “flood of pauperism emigrating from Europe.” The states of New York and Louisiana required ships to post a bond on each entering passenger in order to indemnify the states for the costs associated with immigrants needing financial assistance. The two states argued that the bonds were not a regulation of commerce but rather a legitimate exercise of their “police power.”

The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the required bonds violated the U.S. Constitution because they interfered excessively with foreign commerce.Writing the opinion for the Court, Justice Samuel F. Miller explained that whenever a state statute “invades the domain of legislation which belongs exclusively to the Congress,” such a statute is unconstitutional and therefore void. Although Miller acknowledged that the payment of bonds was somewhat related to the police power of the states, he nevertheless found that charging such a requirement made it impossible for Congress to maintain one uniform system of rules for the landing of passengers and immigrants in all ports throughout the United States. As a result of the Henderson decision, all the immigration legislation of the seaboard states was held to be unconstitutional. In response, the states abolished their immigration commissions, and private philanthropic organizations assumed most of the burden of assisting needy immigrants. The decision encouraged the federal government to pass sweeping new immigration laws in 1882.

Thomas Tandy Lewis

Further Reading

  • Fairman, Charles. Mr. Justice Miller and the Supreme Court, 1862-1890. Clark, N.J.: Lawbook Exchange, 2003. 
  • LeMay, Michael, and Elliott Robert Barkan, eds. U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Laws and Issues: A Documentary History. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999. 

See also: Citizenship; Congress, U.S.; Constitution, U.S.; Due process protections; History of immigration, 1783-1891; Immigration law; New York v. Miln; Passenger Cases; Supreme Court, U.S.

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