The Alien Land Act of 1913

The ability to possess and own land is one of the fundamental ways a human being is able to climb the socioeconomic ladder and create a nurturing stable environment for the family.

Generally, in the legal system a person in possession of land or goods, even as a wrongdoer, is entitled to take action against anyone interfering with the possession unless the person interfering is able to demonstrate a superior right to do so.1

Ownership in the legal system is the state or fact of exclusive rights and control over property, which may be an object, real estate, or intellectual property. The California Alien Land Law (19 May 1913) or Webb-Haney Act summarily state all aliens not eligible for citizenship cannot own nor possess land, property, etc. Due to the wording, the Act includes white European in ownership and possession but not others of different ethnicity.2

This law follows the tradition of many others that were made to halt the immigration of the Chinese and Japanese, who were deemed a threat by the labor unions supporting the Act. Essentially, this racist policy represented the oppression felt by minorities in general that had the law against them. Using the definitions of ownership and possession stated early with the Act, one can imagine their experience.

Lack of possession rights meant aliens would not be protected from unjust actions of their landlord. Lack of ownership meant they do not have a chance in obtaining their own real estate to build a home and business.

The effects of the Alien Land Law of 1913 also go beyond financial detriment. Aliens illegible for citizenship would probably feel insecure and inferior due to their limited access to resources and opportunities. These self-perceived insecurity and inferiority can set the conditions of depression because despair as well as hopelessness detrimentally impact ones socioeconomic mobility. The ability of parents to adequately provide for the family would be at risk, placing undue strain in a marriage, lowering aspirations for a better future.

The Webb-Haney Act is an example of a policy instituted to hurt and impair certain groups for the benefit, more often than not, of dominant members of a society. It was part of a larger trend of attempted discrimination against “aliens ineligible for citizenship.” The California Alien Land Law of 1920 continued the 1913 law by filling much of the loopholes. It was further amended in 1923 to fill wording-related loopholes.3

Eight other states passed restrictive land-ownership laws from 1913 to 1925: Arizona, Washington, Texas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Idaho, Montana, and Oregon. As in Terrace v. Thompson (1923), these alien land laws were upheld by the United States Supreme Court as not violating the Fourteenth Amendment to the United State Constitution. Not surprisingly, during the World War II years, Arkansas, Minnesota, Nebraska, Utah, and Wyoming followed suit.4

A case in point, one of the individuals targeted was Kajiro Oyama, a Japanese immigrant. He had purchased six acres of land in Chula Vista, California in 1934. The land was deeded to his son Fred. Ordered to leave the West Coast in 1942, the family went to Utah forbidden to return home. The State of California filed a petition to declare the Oyama land as forfeited to the possession of the state, because purchase had been made with the intent to evade the Alien Land Act.5

On 31 October 1946, in People v. Oyama the State of California Supreme Court reaffirmed its alien land laws with a judgment for the State and citing the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling as a controlling factor.6

Circumstances, however, can change, bringing about termination or modification resulting in a policy beneficial to those once placed in a subordinate status. Such a change began via a writ of certiorari of the Oyama case. The case was taken up by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) before the United States Supreme Court, where Dean Acheson, the Secretary of Sate under President Harry S Truman, presented the case for the Oyamas.7

The grounds for reversal were predicated against three charges: (1) It deprived Fred Oyama of the equal protection of the laws and of his privileges as an American citizen; (2) It denied Kajiro Oyama equal protection of the law, and (3) It violated the due process clause by sanctioning a taking of property after an appropriate period of limitation had expired.8

The Supreme Court agreed by a vote of 8 to 1 with the ACLU’s contention that Fred Oyama ahd been deprived of federal and sae equal protection guarantees. But, because the decision alone was grounds for reversing the California Supreme Court decision the Court did not address the other two contentions.9

Though Oyama did not strike down California’s Alien Land Laws, it did prove to be an important precedent. Four years later, a step further was taken, albeit symbolically, on 17 April 1952 in the Sei Fujii v. State of California case. Qualifying that in light of the Oyama and Takahashi decisions the 1923 ruling could no longer be considered as controlling precedent. With that perspective, the California Supreme Court declared the Alien Land Laws as a violation of the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.10

More importantly, on 27 June 1952, the Immigration and Nationality Act (McCarran –Walter Act) eliminated the legal category of “immigrant ineligible to citizenship” on which the Alien Land Laws had been passed.11

---Daniel Boayes Lumbang and Kaibigan                          


1. The Just Call Me Charley Blog–

2.    The Statutes of California and Amendments to the Codes Passed at the Fortieth Session of      the Legislature, 1933. Sacramento: Superintendent of State Printing, 1913; Franklin Odo, ed.,   The Columbia Documentary History of the Asian American Experience (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 2002), 160; Roger Daniels, Asian American: Chinese and Japanese in the United States since 1850 (Seattle: Univ. of Washington Press, 1988), 141-2. The bill, co-written by private attorney Francis Joseph Heney and California State Attorney General Ulysses Sigel Webb (R) at the behest of Governor Hiram Warren Johnson (R), passed the Legislature overwhelmingly—35 to 2.        

3.    Shelley Sang-Hee Lee, A New History of Asian America (New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Grp., 2014), 133.

4.    Sang-Hee Lee, Ibid.; Terrace v. Thompson 263 U.S. 197 (1923), Porterfield v. Webb 263 U.S. 225 (1923), Webb v. O’Brien 263 U.S. 313 (1923), Frick v. Webb 263 U.S. 326 (1923), Cockrill v. California 268 U.S. 258 (1925); Edwin E. Ferguson, 1947, “The California Alien Land Law and the Fourteenth Amendment,” California Law Review 35(1):61; Masao Suzuki, “Important or Impotent? Taking another Look at the 1920 California Alien Land Law,” Journal of Economic History (2004) 64(1) 125.

5.    ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties, “Oyama v. California: US Supreme Court RulesCalifornia’s Alien Land Act Unconstitutional” (2 Nov. 2006) (hereinafter ACLU)

6.    People v. Oyama, 29 Cal.2d 164 (1945)

7.    ACLU, Ibid.

8.    Ibid.

9.    Fred Oyama et. al v. California 332 U.S. 633 (1948)

10.  Sei Fujii v. State of California, 38 Cal.2d 718 (1952), in the Takahashi v. Fish & Game Com., 334 U.S. 410 (1948), the California sttute which denied commercial fishing licenses to “aliens ineligible for citizenship” was invalidaed on the grounds that it violated the “equal protection clause.”

11.  Immigration and Nationality Act, a.k.a. McCarran-Walter Act, (27 June 1952), Pub. L. 82-414, ch. 477, 66 Stat. 163, 8 U.S.C. ch.

12. The bill was co-written by Senator Patrick Anthony McCarran (D-NV) and Representative Francis Eugene Walter (D-PA)

Images (from left to right):· 

     Library of Congress: Hiram Warren Johnson·

     San Diego Journal (23 Aug. 1945) : Kajira Oyajma·

     Library of Congress: Patrick Anthony McCarran· 

     Library of Congress: Francis Eugene Walter