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Immigrants' Rights - Landmark Cases

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In many cases, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that only Congress is empowered to enact immigrant law. However, throughout the country's history, various states have tried to limit immigrant rights. The Supreme Court often has ruled against such discriminatory laws over the years. For example, in Yick Wo v. Hopkins (1886), the Supreme Court found that the Fourteenth Amendment's guarantee of equal protection applied to citizens as well as to immigrants. In this case, San Francisco relied on an ordinance restricting laundry businesses from operating in certain kinds of buildings to ban Chinese-owned laundries. Yick Wo had run a laundry in the city for 22 years in the same building, but was denied a new license in 1885--along with numerous other laundry operations of Chinese immigrants--because of alleged violations of a safety ordinance prohibiting laundry businesses from occupying wooden buildings. However, the Court discovered that of the city's 320 laundries, 310 were constructed of wood and only the laundries run by Chinese immigrants (240) were denied new licenses, while the remaining laundries stood to benefit from the discriminatory enforcement of the ordinance. Justice Matthews, writing for the majority, found that while the ordinance itself violated no one's rights, the enforcement of it clearly drew "an arbitrary line, on one side of which [were] those who [were] permitted to pursue their industry by the mere will and consent of the supervisors, and on the other those from whom that consent [was] withheld, at their mere will and pleasure."

The U.S. Supreme Court echoed the tenor of this decision in 1971, ruling in Graham v. Richardson that legal immigrants could not be refused welfare benefits from the states. This case also signaled that equal protection cases would be subject to the same thorough review that racial discrimination cases receive. Here, the Court found state statutes denying welfare benefits to resident immigrants and to immigrants who had not resided in the country for a certain number of years unconstitutional. The Court determined that such statutes undercut and interfered with the federal government's exclusive power over immigrant affairs. Through a number of following decisions, the Court banned many restrictive state laws that violated the rights of immigrants, eliminating statutes that prevented immigrants from obtaining competitive civil service employment, engineering licenses, and licenses to practice law.

However, the U.S. Supreme Court's stance softened in the late 1970s and 1980s, as it upheld New York's restrictive policies denying teacher certification to alien immigrants in Ambach v. Norwick (1979). The Court found that the state's policy not to grant permanent public school teacher certification to immigrants with an alien status unless they intended to apply for citizenship did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause. The Court reasoned that since previous decisions had banned alien immigrants from holding public employment or limited their holding of public positions, New York's policy did not violate the Equal Protection Clause. Similarly, the Court upheld California's law preventing alien immigrants from serving as probation officers in Cabell v. Chavez-Salido (1982). The Court held that "a citizenship requirement is an appropriate limitation on those who exercise and, therefore, symbolize this power of the political community over those who fall within its jurisdiction."

Nevertheless, the Court shifted its position again in the 1982 case Plyler v. Doe, ruling that the children of undocumented immigrants have the right to attend public schools. Texas adopted a policy of prohibiting the children of undocumented immigrants from receiving a public school education. However, the Court found that although illegal immigrants and their children are not citizens, they still are entitled to the Fourteenth Amendment's protections. Because the state law greatly limited the potential of these children by refusing them education and because the state could not demonstrate that the law served a "compelling state interest," the Court declared it unconstitutional.

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