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Alien land laws

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Description: State laws prohibiting Asian immigrants from owning real property, particularly agricultural land, mainly on the basis that they were “aliens ineligible to citizenship.”


Significance: In various cases, the Supreme Court upheld alien land laws and the constitutionality of denying naturalized citizenship to Asians.


In the late 1800's numerous Japanese migrated to California, where many of them became farmers. They cultivated land, irrigating it when necessary, and helped develop California's fruit and vegetable industry. However, their success was perceived as a threat by parts of the farming population, and in 1913 California made it illegal for “aliens ineligible to citizenship” (at that time, primarily Japanese and other Asian immigrants) to own land or lease it for more than three years. Because it takes three years for strawberry plants to produce berries suitable for market, this law negatively affected Japanese immigrants, whose strawberry farms were producing 70 percent of the state's total strawberry output. In 1920 the state passed a law prohibiting aliens from leasing land, buying land through corporations, or purchasing it in the name of U.S.-born (and therefore citizen) children. A 1923 amendment strictly limited cropping contracts (under which aliens farmed for wages). Consequently, land ownership among Japanese immigrants decreased from 74,768 acres to 41,898, and leased land dropped from 192,150 acres to 76,397. California's alien land laws became a model for similar laws passed by fourteen other states. In 1923 the Supreme Court upheld alien land laws in four separate cases. In Terrace v. Thompson, the Court upheld a Washington state statute prohibiting citizens from leasing land to Japanese immigrants. Porterfield v. Webb involved a similar statute in California. In Webb v. O’Brien, the Court found sharecropping agreements between citizens and aliens to be illegal, and in Frick v. Webb, it upheld a statue prohibiting aliens from owning stock in certain types of agricultural corporations. Furthermore, two Court cases in 1922 Yamashita v. Hinkle and Ozawa v. United States upheld the constitutionality of denying naturalized citizenship to Japanese immigrants. However, in Oyama v. California (1948), the Court declared California's 1920 alien land law to be “outright racial discrimination” and in violation of the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. In 1952 the McCarran-Walter Act granted Japanese immigrants the right to naturalized citizenship. State referendums officially repealed the remaining alien land laws, with the last law reversed in Washington state in 1966.