Over the past two centuries, the U.S. Congress and state governments have passed numerous laws targeting racial minorities from prohibiting interracial marriage, to establishing immigration quotas based on race, to forbidding certain groups from owning property. Those laws are now a relic of a less enlightened past, but some are still on the books.
This nation of immigrants has not always been welcoming. Just a decade or so after independence, the U.S. Congress passed a naturalization law that limited citizenship in the new nation to "free white persons." A century later, as the number of immigrants swelled in the American West, the Immigration Exclusion Act specifically excluded Chinese from citizenship.
In the 1920s, Congress barred what it termed "aliens ineligible to citizenship" from entering the country. Because Asians were not eligible for citizenship under the 1790 "whites only" law, they were totally excluded from immigration as well. By then, more than a dozen states had passed Alien Land Laws, limiting or prohibiting "aliens" from owning, leasing or inheriting land. California's Alien Land Law was the first to be repealed in 1952 thanks largely to the Japanese American Citizens League.
"They make a statement about us as Americans, and the fact that we're viewed even in today's world as second class," said John Tateishi is the League's executive director and he knows the impact of the Alien Land Law from personal experience. His immigrant grandfather placed tracts of land in a young son's name, as a way of getting around the law. Because the child was born in the United States, he was a citizen, and exempt from the restrictions.
Changes in federal policies since then made the Alien Land Laws unenforceable, and most were repealed by 1960. But they remain on the books in New Mexico, Florida and, until July, in Kansas.
John Tateishi is angry. "If there's a state in this country that says we are going to maintain a law that says one segment of the population is not welcome here and in fact is forbidden from owning land here," he said, "then it's a very strong statement about racism and prejudice in that state."
It's more a statement about legal terminology, according to University of Cincinnati law professor Jack Chin. He says the complex wording in the Alien Land Laws helped keep them hidden in state documents for decades. Inspired by the 1998 repeal of South Carolina's prohibition on interracial marriage and a similar action in Alabama two years later, Chin and his law review students began searching for other racially discriminatory laws. They found the phrase "aliens ineligible to citizenship" in several state statutes and constitutions.
"And one had to know that the naturalization statute, in effect between 1790 and 1952, imposed a racial restriction on naturalization," he said. "And unless one knew about that statute, the reader wouldn't understand that it was targeting Asians."
Despite its target, the 1933 Kansas statute prohibiting Asians from inheriting property never got much attention. Virgil Dean of the Kansas State Historical Society says the state never had a large Asian population.
"Kansas's Asian population is pretty miniscule even by the 1920s, and so it's maybe reflecting more of a national attitude and national trend moving in this direction," he said.
Legislators in Topeka passed a bill earlier this year repealing the Alien Land Law in Kansas, and it went into effect on July 1. But eliminating the restrictions in Florida and New Mexico will be more complicated. Because the laws are part of those states' constitutions, a statewide vote is required to make any change.
New Mexico State Senator Cisco McSorley has proposed a constitutional amendment, and it will be on the ballot in November. Senator McSorley says he's concerned that it could actually be defeated at the polls.
"I think if you asked 9 out of 10 voters, they wouldn't know it existed and wouldn't believe it existed," he said. "So, part of the problem is making sure people understand the law."
Florida could be the last state with an alien land law in its constitution. Changing it would require either a three-fifths vote by the state legislature or a major petition drive to get the issue on the ballot. But law students and grassroots activists in the state say they're making it a priority to raise awareness of the law and relegate it to history.