Head Money Cases (1884)

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Facts: A Dutch ship arrived in New York from Holland in 1882 with 382 passengers aboard. A New York customs official collected a duty of 50 cents per passenger. Earlier that year, Congress had passed a law titled An Act to Regulate Immigration (Immigration Act of 1882). Before the act was passed, states regulated their own immigrants. The act imposed the 50-cent duty and allowed "the collector of customs" in any seaport to collect it. The owners of the ship paid the duty for each passenger and then sued to get their money back. A federal court ruled against them. (The cases for all the passengers involved the same legal question, so they were argued as one case before the Supreme Court.)

Issues: Is the imposition of the duty in the Immigration Act of 1882 constitutional?

Holding: Yes. Under Article I, Section 8, Clause 3, of the U.S. Constitution, Congress has the power to "regulate Commerce with foreign Nations." According to the court, immigration itself is a form of foreign commerce and Congress has the power to control it. The states cannot regulate commerce with foreign nations.

The ship owners in this case had challenged the Immigration Act because Congress did not have the power to impose the 50-cent duty. They argued that Article I, Section 8, Clause 1, only gave Congress the power "To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States...." The owners contended that the duty was unconstitutional, because it was not applied uniformly throughout the country, nor did it raise funds for the common defense or general welfare of the nation. The court, however, upheld the law as part of the power to regulate foreign commerce, not the taxing power. Therefore, the duty did not have to provide for the common defense or general welfare of the country in order to be constitutional.