Skip to Main Content
Facebook Visit us on LinkedIn Visit us on Twitter Visit us on YouTube Visit us on Instagram


May 29, 2020

5 Landmark Cases in U.S. History Spurred by Asian-Pacific Americans

By Lisa Rose, Research Specialist

Many of the liberties that U.S. citizens enjoy today can be credited to the people who went to court to challenge unjust laws. Below are a few landmark cases brought to the Supreme Court by Asian-Pacific Americans facing deportation, discrimination, and exclusion. In each case, the justice system delivered.

1. Chy Lung v Freeman (1875): Immigration Policy

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. 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 prohibited that person from leaving the ship and entering California unless the ship’s captain 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 that docked in San Francisco Bay. The immigration official deemed her and 20 other women aboard the ship to be “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.

Question: Do states have the right to set immigration policy?

Decision: No, it is the responsibility of the federal government. The statute of California in this respect extends far beyond the necessity in which the right, if it exists, is founded and invades the right of Congress to regulate commerce with foreign nations.

2. Yick Wo v Hopkins (1886): Discrimination

An 1880 ordinance of the city of San Francisco required all laundries in wooden buildings to hold a permit issued by the city's Board of Supervisors. Although workers of Chinese descent operated 89% of the city's laundry businesses, not a single Chinese owner was granted a permit.

Yick Wo and Wo Lee each operated laundry businesses without a permit and, after refusing to pay a $10 fine, were imprisoned by the city's sheriff. Each sued for writ of habeas corpus, arguing the fine and discriminatory enforcement of the ordinance violated their rights under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Noting that, on its face, the law is nondiscriminatory, the Supreme Court of California and the United States District Court for the District of California denied claims for Yick Wo and Wo Lee, respectively. The case ultimately went to the Supreme Court.

Question: Did the unequal enforcement of the city ordinance violate Yick Wo and Wo Lee's rights under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment?

Decision: Yes. A law that may appear to be nondiscriminatory on its face can be discriminatory in how it is applied.

3. United States v. Wong Kim Ark (1897): Birthright Citizenship

The Chinese Exclusion Acts denied citizenship to Chinese immigrants. Moreover, by treaty no Chinese subject in the United States could become a naturalized citizen. Wong Kim Ark was born in San Francisco to parents who were both Chinese citizens residing in the United States at the time. At age 21, he went to China for a visit. When he returned to the United States, Wong was denied entry on the ground that he was not a citizen.

Question: Is a child who was born in the United States to Chinese-citizen parents who are lawful permanent residents of the United States a U.S. citizen under the Citizenship Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment?

Decision: Because Wong was born in the United States and his parents were not “employed in any diplomatic or official capacity under the Emperor of China,” the Citizenship Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment automatically makes him a U.S. citizen. Justice Horace Gray authored the opinion on behalf of a 6-2 majority, in which the Court established the parameters of the concept known as jus soli — the citizenship of children born in the United States to non-citizens.

4. Oyama v California (1948): Land Ownership for Non-Citizens

Oyama had purchased six acres of land in Chula Vista, California in 1934 for $4,000 to grow celery, tomatoes, and peppers. The land was deeded to Kajiro Oyama’s U.S. citizen son, Fred. In 1942, the Oyama family was ordered to leave the West Coast, as were all other Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans in the area. The Oyamas went to Utah. In 1944, when Fred was 16 years old and still forbidden to return to his home, California filed a petition to declare the Oyama land be forfeited to the possession of the state because the purchases had been made with intent to evade the Alien Land Act.

Question: Can individuals who are not eligible for citizenship own land?

Decision: Yes. Specific provisions of the 1913 and 1920 California Alien Land Laws barring land ownership for individuals not eligible for citizenship were unconstitutional, abridging the rights and privileges guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.

5. Lau v Nichols (1973): Supplemental Language Instruction in Public Schools

In 1971, the San Francisco, California school system was integrated. As a result, the San Francisco school system absorbed over 2,856 students of Chinese ancestry who were not proficient in English. Of these students, the school system provided less than half with supplemental English language courses. Classes were taught exclusively in English.

Kinney Kimmon Lau and other students of Chinese descent who did not speak English and received no supplemental English courses brought a class action suit against the officials in the San Francisco Unified School District. The students claimed that the failure to provide supplemental English classes constituted an unequal educational opportunity in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The district court denied relief, holding that the policies of the school system did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment or the Civil Rights Act. The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed, and a hearing en banc was denied. The students appealed the appellate court's decision.

Question: Does a school district violate the Fourteenth Amendment or the Civil Rights Act of 1964 when it teaches exclusively in English and fails to provide non-English speaking students with any supplemental English language classes?

Decision: Unanimous yes. Schools that fail to provide supplemental classes to students who do not speak English violate the Civil Rights Act.