Tuesday, July 14, 2020


Article Index

F. Property

The early-twentieth-century Supreme Court accepted in Truax that the right to work is a basic attribute of personhood, but treated real property like a membership right. In Terrace v. Thompson, the Court held that the state of Washington could prohibit non-declarant aliens from owning real property. The Court found it rational to distinguish between declarant and non-declarant aliens, citing declarant aliens' former voting rights and their obligation to serve in the military. Ultimately, the Court was unswayed by the fact that this rule disproportionately affected Asian Americans, who were ineligible to naturalize. It acknowledged the natural rights analysis of Truax, but claimed that the right to own property was less universal than the right to work: “The quality and allegiance of those who own, occupy and use the farm lands within its borders are matters of highest importance and affect the safety and power of the state itself.”

To this day, alien land restrictions persist in twenty-nine states. When courts have struck down such laws, it has typically been because they restrict citizens' ability to transfer land, not because of immigrants' rights. Although the persistence of antiquated alien land laws may have more to do with inertia than their post-Graham constitutionality, a new class of restrictions on non-citizen property rights has lately gained currency. Increasingly, localities and states have adopted restrictions on leasing land to unauthorized immigrants; in a number of cases, courts have found these restrictions to be preempted by federal immigration law. Thus, immigrants have won these cases not as rights holders on their own, but by asserting that they are third party beneficiaries of federal rights. Non-citizen property rights have always been qualified at best, and have prevailed when packaged with citizens' property rights or the rights of the federal government.

Vernellia R. Randall
Founder and Editor
Professor Emerita of Law
The University of Dayton School of Law