For decades, the government has discriminated against the rights of Asian immigrants to earn a living and own property


When the Statue of Liberty was erected in 1875, it was a beacon of freedom and openness, welcoming immigrants from all over the world. Millions of people came to seek a country where they could flourish and pursue their own happiness.

But that promise ringed hollow for many Asian immigrants who had to endure a host of state laws – and state constitutions, too – designed to stop immigration and deny job opportunities, and even the right to citizenship. property.

By depriving these immigrants of the right to earn a living and later the right to own property, state-sponsored discrimination against Asian immigrants became a feature of legislation in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Take the example of California. Four years after the Statue of Liberty was erected, California passed a new constitution that was rife with anti-Asian discrimination.

California Constitution of 1879 was a lesson in hypocrisy. He started off nobly enough, stating that: “All men are by nature free and independent, and have certain inalienable rights, including those to enjoy life and liberty; acquire, own and protect property; and to seek and obtain security and happiness. These are timeless American principles, the same as those adopted in our Declaration of Independence.

But spurred on by the so-called “Workers’ Party” and its fears about cheap labor, Article XIX prohibited any business or any state or local government from employing “directly or indirectly, in any way. whether it is the Chinese or the Mongols ”. There was only one dissenting voice from a single delegate who called the article a “savage monstrosity” and an example of “man’s inhumanity to man”.

Chinese immigrants had been indispensable in mining during the Gold Rush and in building railways after the gold ran out. But after the last of the main railroads were laid, there was a xenophobic fear of a massive glut of labor – especially cheap Chinese laborers who allegedly lowered the wages of “native” Californians. It is simply not true.

There was, and still is, a widely held myth that there is only so much wealth to flow. But there is no fixed economic pie. With increased economic growth comes new opportunities for prosperity that empower every individual.

In addition to the perceived competition in the job market, there was a clear sense that Chinese immigrants were too different and inferior to white Europeans.

Jacob Riis, a progressive reformer, wrote How does the other half live?, a book that chronicled the slums of New York and went so far as to suggest that Chinatown was “honeycomb” by groups of single Chinese men who “were of no use” and their “wives, all white, girls barely become femininity, worshiping nothing but the [opium] pipe which enslaved them body and soul.

This kind of ethnic bias could be found in major newspapers and periodicals across the United States and served to fuel a frenzy of discriminatory laws – particularly in California.

From 1850, license fees were directed to Chinese miners. In 1862, a special tax was imposed on people “of Mongolian race,” although the California Supreme Court quickly overturned it because it was against federal law. Local cities have often followed suit, with San Francisco passing ordinances targeting Chinese-run housing and businesses. The purpose of these laws was obvious. As the California Supreme Court said in 1862, they all had “the same mind; hostility towards the Chinese and intention to banish them from the country.

Supporters of increasing Chinese discrimination saw a great opportunity with the passage of a new California Constitution. Not only did it prohibit the hiring of “Chinese or Mongolian” workers, but it used the most graphic terms to describe the Chinese as “vagrants, poor people, beggars and criminals … with contagious or infectious diseases”.

This attack on the rights of Chinese immigrants has not been limited to jobs and taxes, but has extended to denying these people the basic right to live in our cities. Section 4 of Article XIX ordered the state legislature to “delegate all necessary power to the incorporated in towns and villages … for the removal of the Chinese from the boundaries of these towns and villages” or for their confinement in districts. specials. Thus, the Chinese could often only live in Chinatowns in California cities.

Other than moral objections of a delegate to these provisions, the only other issues raised by a few delegates were concerned that the courts might overturn some of the more brazen provisions. It was nevertheless adopted by 104 votes to 16.

Federal courts were swift, however, and the most reprehensible provisions did not survive. Of particular note is a challenge by a silver mining company owner who was arrested for refusing to fire his Chinese employees.

In the case of In re Tiburcio Parrott, a federal court ruled that the anti-employment provisions violate the equal-protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution, the Civil Rights Act of 1866, and a treaty between the United States and China .

Indeed, the court was quite dismissive of the justifications for the offending provisions, noting that Chinese immigrants “are as unlikely to fall into vagrancy, pauperism and begging… as any other class, native or foreign. Thus, the Court continued, “the Chinese have a perfect right … to reside in the United States and to enjoy all the privileges, immunities and exemptions available to citizens of any other nation.”

But the 1880 ruling was hardly the end of discriminatory laws – they just got more sophisticated.

The federal government passed the “Chinese Exclusion Law” in 1882, which restricted Chinese immigration and was later upheld by the courts. San Francisco attempted to ban wooden laundry buildings, as they were almost all Chinese owned and operated, until the United States Supreme Court ended the law in 1886.

But with the ban on Chinese immigration, others began to take their place as agricultural workers, mostly Japanese immigrants. It was their presence that led to the adoption of the so-called acts of extraterrestrial lands.

These laws have been passed by 15 states and have banned Asian immigrants from owning real estate. The California Constitution, for example, in its “Bill of Rights,” limits property rights to native-born citizens and “foreigners of white or African descent” who are “eligible to become citizens of the United States. . “

After a treaty with Japan allowed Japanese immigrants to own residential land in cities, California turned to rural farmland.

In 1913, Californian voters passed an initiative that prohibited land ownership to foreigners who were not Caucasian or of African descent and not eligible for citizenship. Around this time, 14 other states passed similar foreign land laws, including Arizona, Arkansas, Idaho, Florida, Kansas, Louisiana, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, Oregon, Texas, Washington, Utah and Wyoming.

As one might suspect, Asian immigrants were not eligible to become citizens under federal law. In one notorious case, Takao Ozawa argued that people of Japanese descent were white, and therefore eligible to become citizens and own land. The United States Supreme Court ruled against him in 1922.

Although there have been some successful attempts to circumvent these laws by putting land on behalf of children born in the country to Japanese immigrants, the foreign land laws have had the effect of drastically reducing the ability of Japanese farmers to own or even rent the land they cultivated. .

After the United States Supreme Court upheld a California ban on sharecropping by Japanese farmers in 1923, many Japanese left for good.

In the asparagus growing community of Walnut Grove, Calif., Japanese farmers – who rented or shared their land to white landowners – fell from 158 farmers in 1923 to fewer than 80 in 1926. Over time As the children born in the country grew, some stability returned to the Japanese Agricultural Community – but it was short-lived.

The progress made was gutted by the internment policy of World War II, in which Japanese Americans were forced to quickly sell or give up everything they owned and surrender in a series of internment camps. Already largely landless, Americans of Japanese descent have become prisoners in their adopted homeland.

It wasn’t until 1952 that the California Supreme Court, in a 4-3 decision, found the state’s foreign land law to be an unconstitutional violation of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Other states followed.

But the last extraterrestrial lands law was not repealed until 2018, when voters in Florida repealed their version.

This story shows why the right to earn a living and own property is so important. The government should not have the power to shorten them. It doesn’t matter what the authorities intend, but having that power allows people, whatever their motives, to abuse individuals.

Whenever state sponsored discrimination arises, it is never limited to depriving some people of some of their rights.

Just as all of our civil rights are intertwined, these laws address not only the right of an ethnic minority to earn a living, but also the right to own and use property, the right to equal education and all these other freedoms. which are guaranteed to all. Americans.

This is why the PLF’s struggle for property rights is so intertwined with its struggle for equal treatment of all citizens under our laws: all rights matter to all Americans. When laws exist to guarantee property rights and opportunities, the prejudices of some cannot affect the rights of others.


About Norman Griggs

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