Alien land laws

Alien land laws are most often associated with western states' attempts to limit the presence and permanence of Japanese immigrants from 1913 through the end of World War II by forbidding "aliens ineligible for citizenship" from purchasing, and later from leasing property in the states in which these laws were passed. The total list of states that passed alien land laws or that contained restrictions against aliens ineligible for citizenship owning property in their state constitutions included Arizona, Arkansas, California, Florida, Idaho, Louisiana, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oregon, Texas, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming. Alien land laws were ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1952.


Alien land laws were first implemented in the Western states in the form of positive legislation to guarantee that aliens could hold land the same as citizens in order to encourage migrants to move to these territories and acquire land regardless of citizenship and to encourage companies to invest in the development of these territories. Alien land laws that restricted aliens' rights to agricultural lands, so often associated with anti-Japanese racism, were initially designed to prevent large-scale absentee landlords from buying up land by giving preference instead to resident aliens and citizen farmers. Early restrictive legislation also focused on reducing the ability of land speculators to increase the price of land by selling to overseas investors for exorbitant prices.

As racial tensions rose in the West against Chinese immigrants, laws were passed by Western states to prevent Chinese immigrants from owning land. In Oregon's 1859 constitution, it stated that no "Chinaman" could own property in the state, and it protected specifically the rights of "white foreigners" the same property owning rights as enjoyed by native citizens. The territory of Washington passed legislation in 1886 in response to the spreading anti-Chinese unrest in the territory that prohibited aliens ineligible for citizenship from property rights. The Washington legislature added a statute to their constitution in 1889 written more broadly, declaring that one had to declare the intent to naturalize "in good faith" to be eligible for property ownership, which meant that the applicant had to be eligible for naturalization, and Asian immigrants were not eligible. When California re-wrote its constitution in 1879, it limited land ownership to aliens of the "white race or of African descent," the same language used to limit naturalization in 1870. The 1870 Naturalization Act had removed the "white" only restriction on citizenship that had been in force since 1790 and expanded naturalization rights to anyone of African descent. This meant that if an applicant was neither white, nor of African descent, they were not eligible for naturalization. The coded language targeting "aliens ineligible for citizenship" became a legal way that individual states could limit the rights of Asian immigrants without targeting a group racially in the language of the law.

Targeting Japanese Immigrants

In direct response to anti-Japanese hysteria, alien land laws shifted focus to Japanese immigrants when California passed the Alien Land Law of 1913 prohibiting aliens ineligible for citizenship from owning land, and adding a prohibition against aliens ineligible for citizenship from possessing long-term leases. Families and communities navigated their way around the law. Some created corporations to purchase land on behalf of Japanese immigrants, others purchased land through white intermediaries, and others purchased land in the names of their U.S.-born citizen children. The first California test case of the last practice involved the Harada family of Riverside, California ( California v. Harada , 1918). Despite the fact that California Attorney General Ulysses S. Webb had co-written the law, he admitted that the law as written could not prevent U.S.-born citizens from owning land. Nisei children were U.S.-born citizens under the 14th Amendment, so Japanese immigrants found that purchasing land in their children's names was one way they could circumvent alien land laws for a time.

From 1919 through 1923, state legislatures throughout the western United States bowed to renewed pressure from anti-Asian and anti-immigrant groups, labor unions, granges, and politicians to close loopholes in alien land laws. Anti-Japanese groups made wild claims about the "threat" that Japanese immigrants represented in terms of economic competition and their alleged inability to assimilate fully into American society. California passed its own amendment to its alien land law in 1920, prohibiting even short-term leases of land to aliens ineligible for citizenship. It also prohibited stock companies owned by aliens ineligible for citizenship from acquiring agricultural lands. Washington revised its law with the Alien Land Bill of 1921, and like California, further refined the law again in 1923. One section passed in 1923, for example, was designed to limit the rights of U.S. born children to hold land in trust for an alien parent in an effort to end the well-known practice of purchasing land in the names of Nisei children.

Various court cases tested the alien land laws with mixed results. Generally the 14th Amendment right to citizenship of U.S.-born children was upheld, except in cases where the courts determined that a child's ownership of land was designed solely to give aliens ineligible for citizenship principle interest in agricultural lands. For example, in the California Supreme Court case of Estate of Tetsubumi Yano , (188 Cal. 645, [1922]) the court defended the Nisei child's right to own agricultural land and the alien parent's right to guardianship over that land; but in the case of Washington v. Hirabayashi , (133 Wash. 462, [1925]), the Washington State Supreme Court determined that the transfer of stock shares in a corporation that held agricultural lands into the name of a Nisei child had not changed the fact that Issei maintained primary interest and ownership over the land. Therefore in that case, the court ruled that the land must escheat to the state. Even though the issue of citizen property ownership complicated rulings, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1923 the laws restricting the rights of aliens ineligible for citizenship from owning land directly were not a violation of aliens' rights to equal protection under the 14th Amendment.

World War II and Postwar Invalidation

Enforcement of alien land laws intensified during World War II and several other states added alien land laws for the first time during the war, demonstrating the fact that the law was used to further expel Japanese immigrants from some states and prevent permanent settlement in others through the enforcement of state property laws, and to prevent the return of incarcerated Japanese Americans to the West Coast.

After World War II, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against alien land laws, upholding the rights of citizens first to hold property despite their relationship with alien parents ineligible for citizenship, and later determining that alien land laws did infringe on aliens' rights to equal protection under the law. The U.S. Supreme Court, in the case of Oyama v. California , upheld Fred Oyama's right as a U.S.-born citizen to own property even though his father had purchased the land in his name in order to get around California's alien land law. In 1952, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated the remaining alien land laws in the case of Sei Fuji v. California , determining that forbidding aliens from owning land was a violation of the 14th Amendment's equal protection clause.

Authored by Cherstin M. Lyon , California State University, San Bernardino

For More Information

"About the Harada House," Riverside Metropolitan Museum.

Cuison Villazor, Rose. "Rediscovering Oyama v. California: At the Intersection of Property, Race, and Citizenship," Washington University Law Review , 87, No. 5 (2010): 979-1042.

Daniels, Roger. The Politics of Prejudice: The Anti-Japanese Movement in California and the Struggle for Japanese Exclusion . Berkeley: University of California Press, 1962.

Chuman, Frank F. The Bamboo People: The Law and Japanese-Americans . Del Mar, CA: Publisher's Inc., 1976.

Ichioka, Yuji. The Issei: The World of the First Generation Japanese Immigrants, 1885-1924 . New York: The Free Press, 1988.

Lazarus, Mark. "An Historical Analysis of Alien Land Law: Washington Territory and State: 1853-1889," University of Puget Sound Law Review , 12 (1989): 198-246.

Lyon, Cherstin. Prisons and Patriots: Japanese American Wartime Citizenship, Civil Disobedience, and Historical Memory . Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2011.

Matsumoto, Valerie. Farming the Home Place: A Japanese American Community in California, 1919-1982 . Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1993.

Rawitsch, Mark. The House on Lemon Street: Japanese Pioneers and the American Dream . Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2012.

Last updated June 20, 2024, 2:28 a.m..