One of the enduring complaints against immigrants is that they “steal” jobs from natives. Whether it was Chinese laborers laying track for railroads in the nineteenth century or Mexicans harvesting fruit today, these cheeky foreigners take what rightfully belongs to Americans.
Indeed, the Chinese thieves sparked some of the first legislation against immigrants. Before their crime-spree, Americans welcomed the world to their shores. Their continent was a huge one, wild and wooded, in need of farmers, families, and entrepreneurs to tame it. And since the Constitution never empowers the federal government to interfere with movement over the national border, no laws kept newcomers out.
That hospitality disappeared in 1875, when Congress passed legislation barring convicts and prostitutes (except itself, of course). More categories of undesirables followed: lunatics and idiots (Congress again exempted), paupers, and Chinese laborers could no longer settle in America.
Such dictatorial legislation inspired litigation, and lots of it. Some of the cases landed before the Supreme Court – which had decided to uphold the new laws no matter what, judging by the justices’ legal hijinks. Since they couldn’t cite the Constitution to justify the power-grab, they relied on other authorities, including “Mr. [William] Marcy, the secretary of state under President Pierce,” who insisted, “Every society possesses the undoubted right to determine who shall compose its members, and it is exercised by all nations, both in peace and war.”