Immigration policy in the United States has seen many changes as public opinion and news media coverage fluctuate, but one very important driver of these changes is the United States Supreme Court. One of the ways in which Supreme Court cases are deeply impactful is through the power of precedent. A precedent is when a case decision becomes the standard for all following cases that have similar points of contention. Consequently, cases in lower courts often see Supreme Court rulings cited as support for arguments because of precedence. Supreme Court decisions have shaped U.S immigration policy starting with cases such as the Passenger cases in 1849 and the Chy Lung v. Freeman (1875) case which delegated to and affirmed that immigration matters belonged under federal jurisdiction. This means that the federal government would be deciding on immigration policies and not states. This is important because immigration authorities would retain a more centralized and unified front instead of relying on the different laws passed by states. Additionally, the U.S Supreme Court ruled on several other prominent contentious cases that affected immigrants. Two examples of these are the rulings on cases relating to citizenship rights and civic protections.
The Supreme Court ruled on matters of who was granted citizenship, and in many ways, it was limited. These limitations are demonstrated by cases such as the Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857) and Elk v. Wilkins (1884) which excluded African Americans and Native Americans from the right to be granted citizenship. It wasn’t until United States v. Wong Kim Ark (1898) that the Supreme Court established precedent that “any person born in the United States is a citizen by birth regardless of race or parents’ status.” In United States v. Wong Kim Ark example, once the Supreme court ruled that citizenship was a birthright, all following cases that dealt with citizenship based on birthright had to follow the precedent set by that supreme court case. An exception to the ruling came after a law called the Expatriation Act of 1907 was passed which stripped U.S-born women of their citizenship if they married a noncitizen man because it was understood that women gained their citizenship from their husbands. This law was reversed with the Cable Act of 1922 after the women’s suffrage when women were allowed to vote.
Many of the earlier Supreme Court case decisions on immigration further supported the idea of the “lesser rights of aliens,” but as time went on the Supreme Court upheld those rights through their subsequent rulings. An example of case decisions that lessened the amount of immigrant civic rights and protections is the Wong Wing v. United States (1896) case which allowed detention and incarceration by the federal government in the name of national security. In Wong Wing v. United States, the Supreme Court ruled that detaining immigrants was not “a criminal punishment” and so immigration cases were turned over to a separate system of courts with less civic protections. In more recent years, like in the case of Plyler v. Doe (1982), the Supreme Court protected undocumented immigrant children’s right to attend school by preventing public schools from refusing admission based on immigration status.
The U.S Supreme court has affected immigration laws and the lives of immigrants in the United States by setting precedents that shape immigration history through rulings on cases that deal with important topics such as citizenship and civic rights. Precedence and final decision are powerful tools that have granted the U.S Supreme Court an important role in immigration laws.