Tag Archives: Edwards v. California

California is Not Who “They” Are

(January 18, 2019) Senator Kamala Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi are among the leading politicians urging slack regulation of illegal immigration. Since the stance is popular in their home state of California they seek every opportunity to publicly express the opinon that strict immigration enforcement is immoral. They proclaim that it is inconsistent with traditional American values with pontificating phrases such as “it is not who we are as Americans.”

In truth, however, California has a long history of attempting to prevent impoverished laborers from migrating to their state. Moreover, their traditional hostility toward such workers even includes other Americans as well as foreigners. As far back as 1860 California enacted a law that made it a crime to bring anyone known to be indigent into the state. Even if the person was from another state of the United States, it was a California crime to bring him, or her, into the state. The state’s applicable pauper law was eventually challenged toward the end of the Great Depression. As narrated in John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, that was a period when many impoverished Southerners from such states as Oklahoma and Arkansas moved to the San Joaquin Valley to pick fruit and vegetables at wages that were beneath the dignity of regular Californians.

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Specifically, in 1939 a California resident named Edwards travelled to Texas to collect his unemployed brother-in-law, named Duncan. After Edwards returned to California with Texas-resident Duncan, Edwards was arrested for violating the pauper law and sentenced to six months in jail. His lawyers appealed the case, which eventually landed in the United States Supreme Court. They argued that California’s action was unconstitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment and other provisions.  They further argued  the the law’s true purpose was to prevent migrants of other states from becoming California voters because such voters were likely to oppose the state’s restrictive  domestic migration laws.

In 1941 the U. S. Supreme Court ruled 9-to-0 against California in Edwards v. People of the State of California. It ruled that no state could prevent any American citizen from crossing any state border merely because he, or she, was poor. Nor could any state deny such persons the opportunity to become residents of the destination state merely because they were poor.

But Californians did not limit their attempted exclusionary laws to impoverished Southerners. During the nineteenth and much of the twentieth centuries they did everything they could to minimize the growth of their Asian-American population. Since they objected to the Amendment’s birthright citizenship provision, Californians did not ratify the Fourteenth Amendment until 1959, which was ninety-one years late. Put bluntly, they did not want Asian-American babies born in the USA to become citizens. Also in the late nineteenth century Californians advocated a number of federal laws—collectively known as the Chinese Exclusion Acts—as a way of reducing California’s Asian-American population. They succeeded. Chinese-Americans could not even become naturalized citizens until 1943.

A more complete analysis of California’s discrimination against Asian-Americans is provided in my June 2018 blog post titled “Today’s Echo of a Reconstruction Era Controversy.”