Alien Land Laws

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Alien Land Laws

Private ownership of land occupies a central position in American law. In the nineteenth century a link emerged in West Coast states between property ownership and race, exemplified by the 1859 Oregon Constitution, which declared that no “Chinaman” could ever own land in Oregon. During this period, “race” was legally constructed along a white-nonwhite binary, with Chinese immigrants categorized as “nonwhites.” For the Chinese in the United States, this subordinate racial status entailed strict labor and residential segregation from whites, as well as a vulnerability to mob violence. Their inability to become citizens only compounded their subordinate racial status.

White antipathy to foreign laborers from China culminated in the federal Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which barred Chinese immigration for a ten-year period (it was later extended a number of times). This anti-Chinese racism was easily transferred to Japanese agricultural workers, who began entering the country in increasing numbers after 1890. Like the Chinese before them, Japanese agricultural laborers were classified as “nonwhite,” and they were therefore barred from becoming U.S. citizens. Yet despite the racialized disabilities imposed upon them, Japanese immigrants thrived in the first decade of the twentieth century. Their success in agriculture was held against them, however: White farmers viewed them as unfair competitors because entire Japanese families would work their farms and save labor costs.

This racial animosity congealed into efforts to prevent the Japanese from owning or acquiring agricultural land. An “Alien Land Law” was passed by the California legislature in 1913. The law granted aliens eligible for U.S. citizenship plenary property ownership rights but limited “aliens ineligible to citizenship” to those rights explicitly granted by treaties. The relevant 1911 U.S.-Japan treaty, however, did not mention protecting the property rights of Japanese persons residing on agricultural land 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. This legal sanction was a response to the economic success of Japanese truck farmers in California in the early twentieth century.

Despite the 1913 law, Japanese land holdings increased. Japanese farmers used various strategies to circumvent the law, such as assigning title in the name of citizen children, with land held in trusts or guardianships, or forming title-holding agricultural corporations with noncitizen farmers as shareholders. By 1920 anti-Japanese activists—including members of the California Grange, which was supported by the Hearst newspapers—placed an initiative on the ballot outlawing the 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, and between 1921 and 1925 Washington, Louisiana, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, and Kansas passed similar laws. During World War II Wyoming, Utah, and Arkansas also passed Alien Land Laws.

In 1923 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on the constitutionality of these laws. In Terrace v. Thompson (1923), the 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 law.

After World War II the California law was challenged in Oyama v. California (1948). The U.S. Supreme Court overturned, on equal protection grounds, a provision of the 1920 initiative that forbade an “alien ineligible to citizenship” from being a guardian to a minor U.S.-born child. The California Supreme Court finally overturned the entire 1920 law in Fujii v. State of California (1952), and the Oregon and Montana supreme courts also set aside their Alien Land Laws in Namba v. McCourt (1949) and State of Montana v. Oakland (1955), respectively.

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.

SEE ALSO Immigration to the United States.


Aoki, Keith. 1998. “No Right to Own?: The Early Twentieth-Century ‘Alien Land Laws’ as a Prelude to Internment.” Boston College Law Review 40: 37–72.

Lazarus, Mark L., III. 1989. “An Historical Analysis of Alien Land Law: Washington, Territory and State, 1853–1889.” University of Puget Sound Law Review 12: 197–246.

Yamamoto, Eric K., et al. 2001. Race, Rights, and Reparation: Law and the Japanese American Internment. Gaithersburg, MD: Aspen Law and Business.

Keith Aoki