Friday, December 12, 2014

Immigration History: The Constitutional Question

Previous: A National Policy

In this post we finally directly face the constitutional question that has been haunting this entire series. Prior to the Civil War, most constitutional discussion about immigration authority involved the commerce clause. However, and quite likely as a result of distaste with the "people as commerce" implications of such an argument in light of the slavery question, that line of thinking was largely abandoned in the second round of immigration cases.

In 1875 the Supreme Court again considered to what extent states could restrict immigration. After the Passenger Cases resulted in the invalidation of the state taxes on immigration, New York modified its laws. Instead of a tax on immigrants, New York adopted a $300.00 per-passenger bond on ship captains for the purpose of indemnifying the city for any expense the immigrants might cause during their first four years in the country. However, instead of paying the bond, the captain also had the alternative of paying a $1.50 per-passenger fee. If neither was paid, a $500 per-pauper penalty was imposed on the captain.

The Court reviewed this statute in Henderson v. Mayor of City of New York, 92 U.S. 259 (1875) and held that it was an unconstitutional because regulation of commerce and international relations were exclusive matters for the federal government. The Court explained:
A regulation which imposes onerous, perhaps impossible, conditions on those engaged in active commerce with foreign nations, must of necessity be national in its character. It is more than this, for it may properly be called international. It belongs to that class of laws which concern the exterior relation of this whole nation with other nations and governments. If our government should make the restrictions of these burdens on commerce the subject of a treaty, there could be no doubt that such a treaty would fall within the power conferred on the President and the Senate by the Constitution. It is in fact, in an eminent degree, a subject which concerns our international relations, in regard to which foreign nations ought to be considered and their rights respected, whether the rule be established by treaty or by legislation. 
It is equally clear that the matter of these statutes may be, and ought to be, the subject of a uniform system or plan. The laws which govern the right to land passengers in the United States from other countries ought to be the same in New York, Boston, New Orleans, and San Francisco. A striking evidence of the truth of this proposition is to be found in the similarity, we might almost say in the identity, of the statutes of New York, of Louisiana, and California, now before us for consideration in these three cases. 
It is apparent, therefore, that if there be a class of laws which may be valid when passed by the states until the same ground is occupied by a treaty or an act of Congress, this statute is not of that class.
 * * *
We are of opinion that this whole subject has been confided to Congress by the Constitution; that Congress can more appropriately and with more acceptance exercise it than any other body known to our law, state or national; that by providing a system of laws in these matters, applicable to all ports and to all vessels, a serious question, which has long been matter of contest and complaint, may be effectually and satisfactorily settled.
This decision was released six months after Congress adopted its first national restrictions on immigration. However, Henderson is not the case pointed to for the federal immigration authority. For that, we need to fast forward another fourteen years. This time, instead of a challenge to state policies (which only indirectly involved federal powers), the Court was squarely face with the question: are federal immigration restrictions permitted under the Constitution.

The answer was yes, but the reasoning is one that ought to bother both originalists and textualists.

As you will remember from the last post, Congress passed the first of the Chinese Exclusion Acts in 1882. In 1889, a challenge to these restrictions was decided by the Supreme Court in The Chinese Exclusion Case (Chae Chan Ping v. United States), 130 U.S. 581 (1889).

In 1884 Congress had established a system of giving licenses to certain Chinese laborers who were in the country which would grant them permission to return should they visit China. However, in 1888 Congress revoked that return privilege, resulting in the exclusion of all those who had departed the country with the expectation of an ability to return. Chae Chan Ping was one such laborer. After working in the United States for a number of years, he obtained the certificate permitting his return entry and departed for China. However, since the law was changed in his absence, he was denied reentry upon his return to the United States. He brought suit on two grounds: that the Congressional act violated a treaty with China and that it was an unconstitutional exercise of federal power. He lost on both grounds.

First the Court examined the law in light of the 1868 treaty with China which guaranteed free migration between the two countries (an 1880 modification permitted some restrictions, but not absolute prohibition) and held that treaties have no force without implementing legislation and do not bind the legislature:
The treaties were of no greater legal obligation than the act of Congress. By the Constitution, laws made in pursuance thereof, and treaties made under the authority of the United States, are both declared to be the supreme law of the land, and no paramount authority is given to one over the other. A treaty, it is true, is in its nature a contract between nations, and is often merely promissory in its character, requiring legislation to carry its stipulations into effect. Such legislation will be open to future repeal or amendment. If the treaty operates by its own force and relates to a subject within the power of Congress, it can be deemed in that particular only the equivalent of a legislative act, to be repealed or modified at the pleasure of Congress. In either case, the last expression of the sovereign will must control.
In short, the courts are not the proper mechanism for holding Congress to a treaty and Congress can follow or not follow a treaty as it sees fit.

The Court next turned to the constitutional question, holding that since immigration was a national issue, of course power to regulate it belonged to the national government:
That the government of the United States, through the action of the legislative department, can exclude aliens from its territory is a proposition which we do not think open to controversy. Jurisdiction over its own territory to that extent is an incident of every independent nation. It is a part of its independence. 
* * * 
The power of the government to exclude foreigners from the country whenever in its judgment the public interests require such exclusion has been asserted in repeated instances, and never denied by the executive or legislative departments.
* * * 
The power of exclusion of foreigners being an incident of sovereignty belonging to the government of the United States as a part of those sovereign powers delegated by the Constitution, the right to its exercise at any time when, in the judgment of the government, the interests of the country require it, cannot be granted away or restrained on behalf of anyone.
I said earlier that this analysis should be troubling to originalists and textulists. Here's why. The Constitution was intentionally written, and the federal government was intentionally structured, to not exercise all powers inherent to sovereignty. This is a primary feature, not a accidental byproduct. The national legislature does not have all powers "incident of sovereignty," but only those explicitly delegated (plus those "necessary and proper" to exercise the powers explicitly delegated). The Constitution itself states this, and were that not clear enough the Tenth Amendment states it again.

The Chae Chan Ping case involved none of this analysis. The Court did not categorize immigration restrictions under the delegated power to regulate naturalization, nor did it place them under the delegated power to regulate commerce. In fact, it tied the restrictions to no specific delegated power whatsoever. Instead, it skipped that entire analysis and simply said that as a sovereign nation, of course the legislature could adopt such an act. Yet if the federal government can act in any "incident of sovereignty," the entire separation of powers doctrine is obsolete.

And that is how the Supreme Court solved immigration's constitutional problem.

Next: The Chinese Exclusion Acts (link will be provided upon publication)


Mary Sarah Bilder, The Struggle over Immigration: Indentured Servants, Slaves, and Articles of Commerce, 61 Missouri Law Review 4 (Fall 1996) 743-824.

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