State Control of Immigration Declared Unconstitutional

Before this time various questions relating to the subject of immigration had been considered by the Supreme Court of the United States.

The first of these cases was that of the State of New York vs. Miln, which tested the constitutionality of a law passed by the Legislature of the State of New York in 1824, requiring all masters of vessels arriving at the port to make a report in writing and give the name, age, and the last legal residence of every person on board during the voyage, and stating whether any of their passengers had gone on board any other vessel or had been landed at any place with a view of proceeding to New York.

Another section made it lawful for the mayor of the city to require a bond from every master of a vessel to indemnify the mayor and the overseer of the poor from any expense incurred for passengers brought in and not reported.

The United States Supreme Court held that the New York act was not a regulation of commerce, but police; and, being so, it was in exercise of a power which rightfully belonged to the State. Justice Story, dissenting from the decision of the court, thought the law unconstitutional, and said, in part:

The result of the whole reasoning is that whatever restrains or prevents the introduction or importation of passengers or goods into the country authorized or allowed by Congress, whether in the shape of a tax or other charge, or whether before or after their arrival in port, interferes with the exclusive right to regulate commerce.

This law being held to be constitutional, New York, in 1829, in providing for the support of the marine and quarantine hospital established on Staten Island, ordered that the health commissioner should collect from the master of every vessel arriving from a foreign port, $1.50 for every cabin passenger; $1.00 for every steerage passenger, mate, sailor, or marine; and 0.25 for every person arriving on coasting vessels.

The money so collected, after deducting 2 per cent., was to be used for the benefit of the abovenamed hospital.

In 1837 Massachusetts enacted a law which provided for an inspection of arriving alien passengers and required a bond from the owner of the vessel bringing such aliens as security that such of these passengers, incompetent in the eyes of the inspectors to earn a living, should not become a public charge within ten years. It also provided that $2 be paid for each passenger landed, the money so collected to be used for the support of foreign paupers.

In 1849 these two legislative acts were declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, in what are known as the "Passenger Cases." Immediately after the decision of the Supreme Court, the New York statute was modified with a view to avoiding the constitutional objection. As modified, the law pro-vided for the master or owner of every vessel landing passengers from a foreign port to make a report similar to the one recited in the statute declared to be valid in the case of N ew York vs. Miln, in which report the mayor was to endorse a demand upon the owner or master that he give a bond for every passenger landed in the city to indemnify the commissioners of immigration, and every county, city, and town in the State against any expense for the relief or the support of the person named in the bond for four years thereafter; but the owner could commute for such bond and be released from giving it by paying $1.50 for each passenger landed.

In several other States, similar laws were in force. Cases were brought up to the Supreme Court from New York, California, and Louisiana, and the laws were declared unconstitutional. The most interesting part of this decision, however, was that in which the court, in a most unusual proceeding, recommended that Congress exercise full authority over immigration, saying:

We are of the 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 a matter of contest and complaint may be effectively and satisfactorily settled.

Jeremiah W. Jenks, Ph.D., LL.D. and W. Jett Lauck, A.B., "State Control Declared Unconstitutional" In The Immigration Problem, New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1912, P. 302-304.

Return to Top of Page

Immigration Laws, Regulations and Acts
GG Archives

Immigration Laws and Acts

The Immigration Problem 1912

Immigration Archives

Search Our Ship Passenger Lists