Chy Lung v. Freeman (1875)

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Facts: Under a California law, foreign passengers aboard ships were only permitted to set foot in California after state immigration officials screened out any supposedly undesirable persons. Specifically, the law required each official to determine if any non-citizen “is lunatic, idiotic, deaf, blind, crippled, or infirm, or likely to become so, or is a convicted criminal, or a lewd or debauched woman.” If an immigration official deemed a non-citizen passenger to be in any of these categories, the law required that person was prohibited from leaving the ship and entering California unless the ship’s captain posted a bond (paid money) to the immigration official to guarantee that the state would not be responsible for that person for two years. Chy Lung was a Chinese passenger aboard a ship from China and docked in San Francisco Bay. The immigration official deemed her and twenty other women aboard the ship as “lewd and debauched women.” The captain refused to post the bond ($500 in gold), and all of the women were detained. Although the other women filed a writ of habeas corpus and were released, Chy Lung instead brought a writ of error to the United States Supreme Court, challenging the constitutionality of California’s immigration law. 

Issue: Did the California immigration law unconstitutionally conflict with the federal government’s power to control immigration?

Holding: Yes. The Constitution does not permit any state to have “exterior relations” with foreign nations. Furthermore, “[t]he passage of laws which concern the admission of citizens and subjects of foreign nations to our shores belongs to Congress, and not to the states.” A unified and national federal immigration law is justified because of the possibility that a state, such as California, could create a conflict with a foreign nation based upon its immigration law and subsequently lead the entire United States into war as a result. However, the Court provides one exception to this general principle. If a state law, in the absence of congressional legislation, is enacted to protect itself by necessary and proper laws against foreign criminals, it may be constitutional as long as it arises from a vital necessity. It cannot be carried beyond the scope of that necessity. The Court held that California’s law greatly exceeds any permissible scope of necessity and is therefore unconstitutional and preempted (or trumped) by federal law. — AB