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
In 1913, the state of California passed its
In 1920, the state of California passed a new 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 . . .
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
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,
California’s alien land laws were finally invalidated in 1952, when the state’s supreme court struck them down in its
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
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.
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, Joseph William. 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 landlord-tenant relations.
Asiatic Barred Zone
Burlingame Treaty of 1868
Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882
Empresario land grants in Texas
Sei Fujii v. State of California
Yick Wo v. Hopkins