New York v. Miln Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Ignoring congressional power under the U.S. Constitution’s commerce clause, the Miln decision gave individual states power over arriving immigrants by allowing them to regulate passengers on ships entering their ports under the doctrine of the state police powers. In later years, however, the Court would reverse this ruling.

In an attempt to gain control over indigent aliens and others likely to become public charges, New York’s state legislature enacted a law requiring ships docking in New York Harbor to pay a "Head taxes"[head taxes];and states[states]head tax on each passenger and to provide an accurate record of all passengers. Failure to comply with the law was to result in hefty penalties. Because the transportation and ingress of persons was considered a form of commerce, the law raised the explosive issue of the U.S. Constitution’s commerce clause, which gave the federal government ultimate authority to regulate all foreign and interstate commerce. When New York City fined the master of the ship Emily for not reporting a hundred passengers, the master argued in federal court that the New York law was unconstitutional.[c]New York v. Miln[a]Constitution, U.S.;commerce clause[c]New York v. Miln[a]Constitution, U.S.;commerce clause[cat]COURT CASES;New York v.Miln[03880]

After the case reached the U.S. Supreme Court, the Court upheld the New York law by a 6-1 margin. Writing for the Court, Associate Justice Barbour, Philip P.Philip P. Barbour ignored the explosive issue of the commerce clause, while asserting that the state’s “police power” was just as applicable to “precautionary measures against the moral pestilence of paupers, vagabonds, and possible convicts, as it is to guard against the physical pestilence, which may arise from unsound and infectious articles imported.” The state’s right to protect the health and welfare of its citizens, moreover, was “complete, unqualified, and exclusive.” Justice Story, JosephJoseph Story issued a strong dissent. The Miln decision, insofar as it related to the regulation of commerce with foreign nations, would later be overturned in the Passenger Cases (1848) and Henderson v. New York (1875).[c]New York v. Miln[a]Constitution, U.S.;commerce clause

Further Reading
  • Legomsky, Stephen. Immigration and the Judiciary: Law and Politics in Britain and America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
  • LeMay, Michael, and Elliott Robert Barkan, eds. U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Laws and Issues: A Documentary History. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999.

Congress, U.S.

Constitution, U.S.

History of immigration, 1783-1891

Immigration law

Passenger Cases

Supreme Court, U.S.

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