- Early Laws
- End of the Laws
Laws of individual states that limited land ownership by noncitizens, particularly Asian immigrants Significance:
Targeting mainly Asian immigrants, the alien land laws demonstrated an anti-immigrant hysteria in a nation that prided itself on the welcome it extended to immigrants. The discriminatory laws were upheld by the courts into the 1940’s.
The United States of America, even before it became independent from Great Britain, has always had a schizophrenic relationship toward immigrants. It has prided itself on being a nation of immigrants, but its citizens have also frequently complained about the types of new immigrants entering the country, arguing that the new immigrants are not as worthy of becoming Americans as those who have already arrived. Part of this xenophobia has been reflected in laws enacted by some states that banned noncitizens—especially those not permitted to become citizens—from owning land.
Some of the earliest alien land laws occurred in California, which began enacting laws during the nineteenth century that banned aliens who could not become citizens from owning land. California directed these laws mostly against Asians, the main racial group banned from naturalization. Many local California jurisdictions passed such ordinances, and eventually the state government did as well. These laws were not the only manifestation of anti-Asian discrimination, as both laws and customs discriminated. One such custom was a law banning laundries from operating in wooden buildings without permits; it discriminated against Chinese laundry owners who generally could not afford brick buildings. The government officials who issued the permits granted them to virtually all white applicants, while denying them to virtually all Chinese applicants. In 1886, the U.S. Supreme Court declared this practice illegal. California’s state and local governments continued to enact a variety of discriminatory laws targeting against Asians.
In 1913, the state of California passed its Alien Land Law. This law forbade those who were not American citizens and were not eligible for citizenship from owning agricultural land. This law targeted Asians, who constituted the only important category of immigrants in the state who were not eligible for citizenship under federal law. Because immigrants from Europe and Africa could become citizens, the law did not affect them. It would not be until the 1960’s that the U.S. government revamped its naturalization policy to hold that people fromall continents could become citizens. California’s law did not conflict with a 1911 U.S. treaty with Japan that protected the right of Japanese immigrants to own commercial land in the United States, as it covered only agricultural land.
In 1920, the state of California passed a new Alien Land Law that made the restrictions of the 1913 law even more stringent. Up to that time, many Asian immigrants had circumvented California’s land law by purchasing agricultural land in the names of their American-born children and made themselves the managers of the land. Thanks to the unambiguous language of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, even the children of Asians born in the United States were full citizens: All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States . . .
California’s 1920 law was designed to make it even harder for Asians to own land. It required all persons purchasing land in someone else’s name to prove they were not doing so to circumvent the terms of the 1913 law. The 1920 law also prohibited naming as trustees persons ineligible for citizenship and effectively reversed the traditional burden of proof, requiring people to prove themselves innocent. Two years later, California’s supreme court struck down the law’s provision on trusteeship. In 1948, the U.S. Supreme Court addressed the law’s burden-of-proof provisions in Oyama v. California. In that ruling, the Court held that the reversing of proof provision violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment because it treated noncitizens differently. However, the Supreme Court did not strike down California’s 1913 law.
California was not the only U.S. state to enact alien land laws. Other states that added or modified such laws and provisions during the 1920’s included Arizona, Florida, Idaho, Kansas, Louisiana, Montana, New Mexico, Oregon, and Washington. During World War II, anti-Japanese fervor caused Arkansas, Utah, and Wyoming to enact such laws. Most of these states’ laws remained in effect until at least the 1950’s.
End of the Laws
California’s alien land laws were finally invalidated in 1952, when the state’s supreme court struck them down in its Sei Fujii v. State of California ruling because they violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause. The California court was initially considering a claim by an immigrant named Sei Fujii that California’s alien land laws violated the human rights provisions of the United Nations (U.N.) Charter, which, ironically, had been drafted in San Francisco. California’s supreme court held that the charter’s human rights provisions were not self-executing, and because neither the state of California nor the federal government had acted to implement legislation to bring these provisions into effect, the charter was not in force in California. Instead, the court cited the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution to invalidate the law. However, the state legislature waited another four years before formally voting to remove the invalid statute.
Later court decisions have largely rendered unconstitutional further attempts to enact legislation discriminating against legal immigrants. However, the absence of a direct ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court striking down such laws (Oyama struck down only the 1920 strengthening statute, not the original 1913 law) meant that laws had to either be invalidated by each state supreme court or be repealed state by state. Some states took considerable time to do that. For example, as late as 2008, the state of Florida had a ballot initiative that would have removed a constitutional provision on the matter. The provision in question allowed the legislature to forbid alien land holding. Although the provision had never been enforced, Florida voters refused to vote for its removal in 2008. Some opponents of the ballot measure argued that removal of the constitutional provision’ would somehow aid terrorists and illegal immigrants.
By the early twenty-first century, only four states still had alien land laws on their books. Other states had already removed their own laws or had had them overturned by courts. Oregon and Montana, for example, had their laws overturned by their state supreme courts during the 1940’s and 1950’s. Washington State required a ballot proposition to overturn its law. That measure went through three elections before it received a majority vote, even though only one state legislator publicly opposed the measure. Scott A. MerrimanFurther Reading
Bender, Steven. Greasers and Gringos: Latinos, Law, and the American Imagination. New York: New York University Press, 2005. While examining the roots of negative Hispanic stereotypes and their effect upon laws, Bender shows how many land-use laws were directed against Latino immigrants and members of other groups.
Chappelle, Diane. Land Law. New York: Longman, 2008. Examination of all aspects of American land laws, including prohibitions and regulations.
Jordan, Maria Elena Sanchez, and Antonio Gambaro, eds. Land Law in Comparative Perspective. Boston: Kluwer Law International, 2002. Collection of essays that examine land law throughout the world. They look at historical and contemporary issues, including land ownership.
Pincetl, Stephanie. Transforming California: A Political History of Land Use and Development. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999. Focuses on land use in California, where some of the strongest alien land laws were enacted. Examines California’s past and present, including its environmental history and other land-use issues.
Singer, JosephWilliam. Property Law: Rules, Policies, and Practices. 4th ed. New York: Aspen, 2006. Illuminates a wide variety of different aspects of property law, including such topics as trespass, ownership, adverse possession, and landlordtenant relations.
See also: Americanization programs; Anti-Chinese movement; Anti-Japanese movement; Asiatic Barred Zone; Burlingame Treaty of 1868; California; Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882; Empresario land grants in Texas; Paper sons; Sei Fujii v. State of California; Yick Wo v. Hopkins.