Head Money Cases 1884

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Head Money Cases 1884

Appellants: Edye & Another, Cunard Steamship Company

Appellee: W. H. Robertson

Appellants' Claim: That the Immigration Act of 1882 establishing a tax on immigrants entering the nation was unconstitutional.

Chief Lawyer for Appellants: Edwards Pierrepoint, Phillip J. Joachimsen, George DeForest Lord Chief Lawyer for

Appellee: Samuel Field Phillips, U.S. Solicitor General

Justices for the Court: Samuel Blatchford, Jospeh P. Bradley, Stephen J. Field, Horace Gray, John Marshall Harlan I, Stanley Matthews, Samuel F. Miller, Chief Justice Morrison R. Waite, William B. Woods

Justices Dissenting: None

Date of Decision: December 8, 1884

Decision: Ruled in favor of the Robertson and the United States by finding that Congress had authority to tax immigrant entry through its power to regulate commerce.

Significance: The decision supported Congress' power to regulate immigration into the country. It also recognized that Congress not only had power to tax through the Tax and Spending Clause of Article I of the U.S. Constitution, but also through the Commerce Clause as well. Congress passed numerous other laws regulating immigration through the following century.

Immigration is the act of people coming to live in a foreign country. Often the term is confused with emigration which refers to people leaving their own country to live in another. Immigration to the United States has increased and declined in various time periods since the early colonists to the New World in the seventeenth century.

Through the nineteenth century until the 1930s the world experienced extensive immigration of peoples from one country to another. Over half of those immigrants came to the United States. Though many reasons spurred people to immigrate to a new country, searching for better jobs and economic opportunity was most common.

Through much of the nineteenth century, the U.S. government made little effort to regulate immigration as the California gold rush of 1849 attracted many Chinese laborers. Neither passports nor visas were required. Though immigration had long been central to American settlement, concern over it grew through the 1850s. Immigrants served as a source of inexpensive labor and it was believed took jobs away from U.S. citizens. Also, many immigrants did not readily blend into U.S. society causing considerable suspicion and fear among the general public. Although an economic depression in the United States in the 1870s greatly slowed immigration, Congress passed it first immigration law in 1875 barring entry to convicts and prostitutes.

With improving economic conditions by 1880, America once again became attractive. Immigration increased dramatically as did public concerns over the effects of immigration. Due to a shortage of farmland and increasing poverty in northwestern Europe, the new wave of immigration included many citizens of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden.

Responding to public pressure, Congress began passing more measures in 1882 to regulate immigration. One bill, the Chinese Exclusion Act, prohibited Chinese laborers from entering the country. On August 3, 1882, Congress passed another bill, the Immigration Act. The act read,

That there shall be levied, collected and paid a duty of fifty cents for each and every passenger, not a citizen of the United States, who shall come by steam or sail vessel from a foreign port to any port within the United States.

The purpose of the tax, known as "head money," was to establish "a fund to be called the Immigrant Fund . . . to defray the expenses of regulating immigration under this Act and for the care of immigrants . . . for the relief of such as are in distress."


A s of 1998, immigration regulation is governed by the Immigration Act of 1990, also known as IMMACT. IMMACT established a limit of six hundred seventy-five thousand immigrant that will be allowed to move into the United States each year. This limit does not include people who are seeking refuge, asylum, or people who want to come into the United States for other humanitarian-based reasons. There also are no limits for immigrants who are spouses, minor children, or parents of people who are already U.S. citizens.

Under IMMACT, one hundred forty thousand of the total annual admissions may be for employment-based reasons. The act favors the admission of immigrants who are professionals and investors, and places an annual limit of ten thousand on admission of lesser-skilled persons.

IMMACT also has a diversity component that reserves fifty-five thousand annual admissions for immigrants from countries that traditionally do not have strong family or job ties to the United States. Each diversity-based immigrant must have a high school degree or its equivalent, or two years of experience in an occupation requiring two years of training.

Immigrants who enter the United States by commercial aircraft or vessel pay a six dollar fee when their ticket for travel is issued. The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service enforces the immigration laws and manages the various admissions.

The Dutch Steamer Leerdam

Two months later, on October 2, 1882, the Dutch steamship Leerdam arrived in New York Harbor from Rotterdam, Holland. The ship contained 382 immigrants who planned to settle in the United States. The company of Funch, Edye & Co. which was responsible for the ship in the United States was charged $191 head money on October 12th by William H. Robertson, the customs collector for the port of New York. The company paid the tax so they could enter the harbor, but within a few days appealed the fee to the Secretary of Treasury. The Secretary denied their appeal. Funch next filed a lawsuit U.S. Circuit Court against Robertson claiming the charge was unconstitutional. The court ruled in favor of the customs collection.

When appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, the lawsuit was combined with two other similar cases and titled Head Money Cases. The shipping companies raised three arguments in their case. First, Congress exceeded its constitutional powers by regulating immigration with an immigrants' entry tax. Article I of the Constitution stated that Congress shall have the power to lay and collect taxes, duties, . . . and excises, to pay the debts and provide for the common defense and the general welfare of the United States; but all duties . . . and excises shall be uniform throughout the United States. The companies argued the head tax was not for general welfare and common defense, therefore Article I did not support a head tax. Besides, immigration, the companies argued, is not a business. The United States did not argue the Article I challenge, for it was the Commerce Clause giving Congress power to regulate trade that was used to pass the act. The Commerce Clause, also located in Article I of the U.S. Constitution, gives Congress the power "to regulate Commerce with foreign Nations and among the . . . states." Commerce refers to producing, selling, and transporting goods.

Secondly, the companies argued the tax was applied only at ports where immigrants entered the country. As Article I stated, all taxes levied by Congress must be uniformly applied. Therefore, the tax was unconstitutional because it did not apply to all ports.

Thirdly, the Immigration Act was illegal because it conflicted with existing international treaties between the United States and other nations which permitted immigration. They claimed the tax inhibited immigration.

The Business of Immigration

The Court ruled unanimously, 9–0, in favor of the United States. Justice Samuel F. Miller, writing for the Court, stated that Congress clearly had authority to regulate immigration. Since the Court had ruled in a previous case that states do not have that power, then the federal government must. Miller wrote that it would be unthinkable "that the ships of all nations . . . can, without restraint or regulation, deposit here . . . the entire European population of criminals, paupers, and diseased persons, without making any provision to preserve them from starvation . . . even for the first few days after they had left the vessel." Miller also found that indeed immigration was a business and a very profitable one at that. Consequently, it was not unreasonable to expect those profiting from immigration to bear some of the burden in helping those immigrants who were poor and protecting U.S. states and cities from an excessive financial burden.

Secondly, Miller asserted that the tax was uniformly applied since "it operates with the same force and effect in every place where [immigration] . . . is found." The main concern would be that all ships carrying immigrants was taxed the same way and Miller found that to be the situation.

Lastly, Miller could not see where any treaty had been violated since no foreign country had complained. Besides, Congress had the power to change treaties if it so desired anyway, much like changing its own laws. Miller concluded that the purpose of the act "is humane, is highly beneficial to the poor and helpless immigrants and is essential to the protection of the people in whose midst they are deposited by the steamships." The immigrant tax act was upheld.

Immigration Restrictions Continue

From 1881 to 1920, over twenty-three million immigrants came to America from throughout the world. The population of the United States in 1880 was slightly over fifty million. By 1900 the U.S. population had grown by 50 percent to almost 76 million with immigration being a major contributor to the dramatic increase. Given support by the Supreme Court in Head Money Cases, regulation of immigration remained a hot issue before Congress throughout the twentieth century.


C ongress repeatedly exercised its constitutional powers as recognized in Head Money Cases to regulate immigration. The Immigration Act of 1990, known as IMMACT, regulated immigration into the United States through the 1990s. The act was administered by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. IMMACT set a limit of 675,000 immigrant entries per year. The IMMACT limit did not apply to refugees, those seeking political asylum, or other humanitarian admissions, or to spouses, minor children, and parents of U.S. citizens. IMMACT set a limit of 140,000 per year for employment reasons. Various categories of workers were included in the limits, favoring more professionals. Only 10,000 of the 140,000 could be lesser-skilled workers. IMMACT also distinguished among countries from which the immigrants are leaving. Striving for diversity in America, a total of 55,000 admissions were reserved for immigrants from countries that do not traditionally enter the country. Such immigrants had to have high school or equivalent education or two years of experience in an occupation requiring two years of training. "Head money" is still applied in the form of a six dollar fee added to tickets for immigrant travel by commercial airlines or boat.

Until the mid-1890s most immigrants had arrived in the United States from northern and western Europe. With a major shift then to southern and eastern Europe as a key source, the new immigrants less readily blended into American society. Public concern over immigration escalated again. Quota laws (placing number limits) were passed in the early twentieth century favoring immigration from northern and western Europe. Another wave of immigration came again during the latter part of the twentieth century with many arriving from Asia.

Suggestions for further reading

Archdeacon, Thomas A. Becoming American: An Ethnic History. New York: Free Press, 1983.

Briggs, Vernon N., Jr. Mass Immigration and the National Interest. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1992.

Daniels, Roger. Coming to America: A History of Immigration and Ethnicity in American Life. New York: HarperCollins, 1990.

Killian, Pamela. Ellis Island: Gateway to the American Dream. New York: Crescent Books, 1991.

Portes, Alejandro, and Ruben G. Rumbaut. Immigrant America: A Portrait. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.

Sandler, Martin W. Immigrants. New York: HarperCollins, 1995.