Noncitizens and Land Ownership

2012-08-10 16:24:25

Private ownership of land occupies a central position in American law, and in the nineteenth century West Coast states, a link emerged between property ownership and Citizenship, which is exemplified by how the 1859 Oregon Constitution declared that no ‘‘Chinaman’’ shall ever own land in Oregon.

An ‘‘Alien Land Law’’ was passed by the California legislature in 1913, granting aliens eligible for U.S. Citizenship plenary property ownership rights, but limiting ‘‘aliens ineligible to Citizenship’’ to those rights explicitly granted by treaties—here, the relevant 1911 U.S.–Japan treaty did not mention protecting property rights in agricultural land of Japanese residing in the United States.

While facially neutral, this law relied on the federal racial prerequisite to naturalization—one had to be a ‘‘free white person’’ to become naturalized—to bar Japanese farmers from land ownership, and was a response to the success of the Japanese truck farmers in California in the early twentieth century. Despite the 1913 law, Japanese landholdings increased as Japanese farmers used strategies to circumvent the law such as assigning title in the name of citizen children, with land held in trusts or guardianships, as well as forming title-holding agricultural corporations with noncitizen farmers as shareholders. By 1920, anti-Japanese activists placed an initiative on the ballot outlawing methods used to circumvent the 1913 law. The 1920 initiative passed with a majority in every California county, and resulted in a decline in acreage under Japanese ownership throughout the decade.

Other western states soon followed. Arizona had enacted an Alien Land Law in 1917. Between 1921 and 1925, Washington, Louisiana, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, and Kansas had passed such similar laws. During World War II, Wyoming, Utah, and Arkansas passed Alien Land Laws.

In 1923, the U.S. Supreme Court opined on the constitutionality of these laws. In Terrace v. Thompson (1923), the Supreme Court upheld the Washington Alien Land Law on the ground that a state could rightly restrict property ownership to U.S. citizens and that doing so did not amount to impermissible racial discrimination. Porterfield v. Webb (1923) upheld California’s 1920 initiative amending the 1913 Alien Land Law. In Webb v. O’Brien (1923), Frick v. Webb (1923), and Cockrill v. California (1925), the Court upheld the 1920 initiative’s various restrictions on circumventions of the Alien Land Law.

After World War II, the California law was challenged in Oyama v. California (1948), wherein the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a provision of the 1920 initiative that forbade an ‘‘alien ineligible to Citizenship’’ from being a guardian to a minor U.S.-born child on equal protection grounds. The California Supreme Court finally overturned the entire 1920 law in Fujii v. California (1952), and Oregon and Montana followed suit in Namba v. McCourt (1949) and Montana v. Oakland (1955).

Washington’s Alien Land Law was repealed in 1966 by ballot initiative. The Wyoming legislature was successfully lobbied by the Alien Land Law Project of the University of Cincinnati Law School in 2001 to repeal its Alien Land Law.


References and Further Reading

  • Aoki, Keith, No Right to Own? The Early Twentieth- Century ‘‘Alien Land Laws’’ as a Prelude to Internment, Boston College Law Review 40 (1998): 40.
  • Lazarus III, Mark L., An Historical Analysis of Alien Land Law: Washington, Territory & State, 1853–1889, University of Puget Sound Law Review 12 (1989): 197.
  • Yamamoto, Eric K., Margaret Chon, Carol L. Izumi, Jerry Kang, and Frank H. Wu. Race, Rights and Reparation: Law and the Japanese American Internment. New York: Aspen, 2001.

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Cockrill v. California, 268 U.S. 258 (1925)
  • Frick v. Webb, 263 U.S. 326 (1923)
  • Fujii v. State, 38 Cal. 2d 718 (1952)
  • Montana v. Oakland, 129 Mont. 347 (1955)
  • Namba v. McCourt, 204 P. 2d 569 (1949)
  • Oregon Constitution, Article XV, Section 8 (1859, repealed 1946)
  • Oyama v. California, 332 U.S. 633 (1948)
  • Porterfield v. Webb, 263 U.S. 225 (1923)
  • Terrace v. Thompson, 263 U.S. 197 (1923)
  • Webb v. O’Brien, 263 U.S. 313 (1923)

See also Aliens, Civil Liberties of