In Appreciation of Those Asian Americans who Endured the Struggle to Become Landowners in America
Land ownership is a time-honored American value. From its founding up to the time of the transition from an agrarian to an industrial economy, in the United States the accumulation of wealth and perceptions of power were based in large part on land ownership. “Do you own your own home” or “Do you own any land” were typical questions asked of borrowers to obtain loans from banking institutions, to purchase cars, and even to seal marriage arrangements. However, there were caveats to this practice called “alien land laws”. What were alien land laws?
Alien land laws were a series of legislative attempts to discourage Asian and other "non-desirable" immigrants from settling permanently in U.S. states and territories by limiting their ability to own land and property.
Because the Naturalization Act of 1870 had extended citizenship rights to African Americans but not other ethnic groups, these laws relied on coded language excluding "aliens ineligible for citizenship" to prohibit primarily Chinese and Japanese immigrants from becoming landowners without explicitly naming any racial group.
Alien land laws were first implemented in the Western states as positive legislation to guarantee that aliens (Asians) could own or lease land the same as U.S. citizens—an attempt to encourage immigrants to migrate to these territories and acquire land regardless of citizenship and to encourage companies to invest in the development of these territories. Land laws that restricted aliens' rights to agricultural lands, 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. For example, in 1859, Oregon's constitution prohibited a "Chinaman" from owning property in the state, and it protected specifically the rights of "white foreigners" to have 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.
In Oyama v. California, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the rights of Fred Oyama, a U.S.-born citizen, to own property. In 1952, in Sei Fuji v. California, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated the remaining alien land laws, holding that forbidding aliens from owning land was a violation of the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause.