What You Need To Know About Immigration: Ozawa v. United States

There is a caravan coming to the United States. The caravan is an immigrant caravan. To some this stream of people is a missile, aimed at the national security of the United States. To others this is a flight of humanity fleeing from the terrors and tribulations of their homelands in the South. Depending on who you are you see this caravan very differently.

Regardless of how you see it, the caravan represents something about America. The caravan is a representation of the divisive issue of immigration in American society, politics and history. The history of immigration is important therefore, because it offers us the opportunity to examine our current situation with regards to this caravan, to understand it in context of the past, and to anticipate what will happen when this caravan of immigrants arrives at the Southern border of the United States.

1200x773When the caravan meets the board crossings in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona or California, they will be met by armed soldiers. The President has recently displaced nearly 6,000 troops to defend the borders, hoping no doubt to use this show of force to impress his supporters with his nativist bona fides.  Undoubtedly it will impress them. Mission accomplished?

But for those who value history and not so much spectacle, the caravans arrival at the border will mean that the tradition of exclusion of immigrants from some countries continues today, just as it was practiced so long ago. The irony will be that we have fooled ourselves, as a nation, into thinking that we had transcended this petty racism. The immigration from Anglo-European nations continues unabated, and without controversy. The immigration from non-Anglo-European nations ins a national security crisis. The irony is palpable.


This is the second installment of What You need To Know About Immigration. Find the first installment HERE.


The tradition of immigration exclusion has many angles for analysis, and I will select the Supreme Court for this perspective. The Court’s decisions regarding immigration will inevitable inform our understanding and history surrounding this current crisis, as it will arrive in the courts sooner or later. How the Court ultimately decides will depend on how relevant they see a few select decisions from the judicial past; a past that does not bode well for the immigrant caravan.

It all started in the 1920s…

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The KKK was All-American in the 1920s

A new racial order was being codified in the United States during the 1920s. The existing binary white-black order seemed hopelessly inadequate for the categorizing of so many newcomers.

Two important Supreme Court decisions, Ozawa v. United States (1922) and United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind (1923), contributed to the idea of a continuum by establishing a third category: nonwhite.

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Takao Ozawa

In Ozawa v. United States, the Supreme Court considered the case of Takao Ozawa who had applied for naturalization, with the support of a few close friends, on the grounds that he was white.

Ozawa, a resident of Hawai‘i, but was born in Japan. He had lived in the United States for twenty-eight years. He had attended the University of California at Berkeley. He and his wife sent their children to American schools, they attended a Christian church, and they all spoke English at home.

In addition, his skin color was white. This observation is significant only because there is no biological determination of race. Race is a social construct, meaning that it is created by society, and therefore changes with society. What is means to be white is never fixed, but always open to interpretation.

This matters in terms of the law especially because laws are not meant to be flexible in their determination. They are inflexible, and therefore standard, unchanging and measurable. When laws are open to interpretation, judges must decide their meaning, and when laws are about race, judges have not standards by which to judge.

The U.S. District Attorney for the District of Hawai‘i denied Ozawa’s petition on the grounds that, as a Japanese man, he was not white and therefore not eligible for citizenship.

Ozawa, however, did not give up and pursued his case until it eventually reached the Supreme Court.



The Supreme Court also denied Ozawa’s petition. They argued that, according to scientific definitions of race, Ozawa was Mongolian, not Caucasian, and thus not eligible for citizenship.

This determination by the Supreme Court is significant, because the Justices attempted to use a pseudo-science to determine race, claiming that there was something biologically different between humans called “Mongolian” and “Caucasian.” This is imagined, and not biological, of course.

Justice George Sutherland delivered the opinion of the court and addressed the issue of skin color. Sutherland argued that the “color test” was “impractical, as that differ[ed] greatly among persons of the same race, even among Anglo-Saxons, ranging by imperceptible gradations from the fair blond to the swarthy brunette.”

Sutherland went on to argue, “The federal and state courts, in an almost unbroken line, have held that the words “white person” were meant to indicate only a person of what is popularly known as the Caucasian race.”

But, as in many other cases revolving around race, Sutherland offered no hard, fast rules when it came to determining who was white. He conceded:

The determination that the words “white person” are synonymous with
the words “a person of the Caucasian race” simplifies the problem, although
it does not entirely dispose of it.

Controversies have arisen and will no doubt arise again in respect of the proper classification of individuals in border line cases.

The effect of the conclusion that the words “white person” means a Caucasian is not to establish a sharp line of demarcation between those who are entitled and those who are not entitled to naturalization, but rather a zone of more or less debatable ground outside of which, upon the one hand, are those clearly eligible, and outside of which, upon the other hand, are those clearly ineligible for citizenship.

Individual cases falling within this zone must be determined as they arise from time to time by what this court has called, in another connection (Davidson v. New Orleans, 96 U.S. 97, 104), “the gradual process of judicial inclusion and exclusion.”

Thus, the court offered no explicit definition of whiteness but instead described it as a border zone. The right of someone to enter and naturalize is determined clearly by the biased judgement of the government to decide who is acceptable and who is not.

Good_Citizen_Pillar_of_Fire_Church_July_1926Race, therefore is based on location, not biology. This is a dangerous history, one which must be acknowledged and resisted, or else the United States could fall victim to the racial nativism that plagued the country in the 1920’s.

For some this was when America was great, but the evidence is less convincing.

The caravan could easily be denied, but history suggests that it will be used. It will be used to convince Americans ignorant of the value of immigration to the United States that they should surrender their freedom and their liberty to a government in exchange for a false sense of racial security.

In the 1920’s the American mainstream embraced the KKK and white supremacy because they feared the changes of the post war world, the rise of communism as an ideology, and the advances of modern science. Today the fear is no different. Just as it was then it is now; the American people are being manipulated by their fear for the power of a few opportunistic politicians. In the 1920’s it was Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge. Today it is Donald Trump and Mike Pence.

Known your history. It will set you free.

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23 Ozawa v. United States

Molina, Natalia. “”In a Race All Their Own”: The Quest to Make Mexicans Ineligible for U.S. Citizenship.” Pacific Historical Review 79, no. 2 (2010): 167-201. doi:10.1525/phr.2010.79.2.167.

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Author: historydojo

I’m a National Board Certified Teacher with nearly twenty years of experience teaching high school history. I blog about teaching, history, current events, the law and social justice.

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