Immigration Stories You Need To Know: Bhagat Singh Thind

Some immigration stories are essential to us all. Bhagat Singh Thind was born in Punjab, India, and had lived in
the United States since 1913. He was an immigrant to the United States.

He attended college at the University of California at Berkeley. Before going to college he had served in the U.S. Army during World War I. Unlike the Chinese and Japanese who were denied citizenship, according to anthropological definitions of race, Thind, being from India, was considered Caucasian. As a result he satisfied the criteria the Supreme Court had set forth in the case of Ozawa v. United States.

This is the fourth installment of Immigration Stories from Historydojo. Check out the third installment here, or start the series with the first installment here.

He sued to have citizenship established for himself, after being denied. The reason: his dark complexion and foreign origins. The rejection of his service and the technical status he embodied as “white” did not sway the local authorities to relent their objections to his petition for citizenship. Thind went all the way to the Supreme Court for citizenship in United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind.

The Popular Sense of Caucasian

Sadly, but not surprisingly, the Court ruled Thind ineligible for citizenship because he was not Caucasian in the “popular sense of the word.” This is sad for a variety of reasons to be explained momentarily. It is not surprising, of course, because at the time the United States was actively trying to define race as Anglo-European, and Protestant Christian. The effort was being slowly reinforced by Supreme Court decisions that narrowed the definition of citizenship to this tiny purview.

Decisions like that in Thind were part and parcel of the effort to limit citizenship through legal barriers. The trick, of course, was for the Court to stay within the confines of the Fourteenth Amendment, which allowed due process and equal protection and banned discrimination. The other “Reconstruction Amendments” had established an end to slavery (the 13th), legal equality (the 14th) and a ban on discrimination (the 15th). Getting around the discriminatory confines of the Fifteenth Amendment required careful legislative and judicial maneuvering. The decision in Thind was part of this effort.

The Decision


In the Thind decision, Justice Sutherland delivered the opinion of the Court, which stated that “a high-caste Hindu, of full Indian blood, born at Amritsar, Punjab, India,” was not “a white person within the meaning of section 2169, Revised Statutes.”

Sutherland cited the 1911 Dictionary of Races or Peoples to support his ruling. The Dictionary, widely considered an authoritative source, was the product of the Dillingham Commission, named after Republican Senator William Dillingham of Vermont.

Dillingham hadheaded a congressional task force established in 1907 to evaluate changes in immigration over the previous twenty-five years and to determine the present and future effects of immigration flows on U.S. society.

Despite acknowledging the authority of the Dictionary, however, Sutherland stated that, in discerning the intent of the law (especially Section 2169) in the Thind decision, the Court had recourse to more than “the speculations of the ethnologist.” This means that the Court was not limited by subjective reasoning of someone specializing in ethnography, the systematic study of peoples and cultures.

Justice Sutherland asserted that the Court was free to limit citizenship beyond subjective determinations based upon a body of evidence, and could simply define the limits of citizenship however the Court determined was best.


The Concept of Race

Sutherland believed that the concept of race was not yet defined, and the the Court would be properly empowered to make the determination of what the “white race” really meant. (Yes, this really did happen. Keep reminding yourself that this happened, as unbelievable as it may seem.)

The “words ‘free white persons’ are words of common speech,” Sutherland wrote, “to be interpreted in accordance with the understanding of the common man, synonymous with the word ‘Caucasian’ only as that word is popularly understood.”

Read More about the extent and influence of U.S. immigration laws in Deportation: The Origins of U.S. Policy, by Torrie Hester

Thus, while the 1790 naturalization act had restricted citizenship to “free white persons” in an attempt to exclude blacks and American Indians from citizenship, immigration changed the population of the United States, and Supreme Court rulings were fundamental in continuing to expand the category of “non-white” to include racialized newcomers.

In essence, what you need to know about Bhagat Singh Thind is that his case opened the door, for lack of a better phrase, for the Court to close the door to citizenship for any and all immigrants who came to the United States, based upon a vague definition of citizenship, established by the Court, that asserted “free white persons” were the only people eligible for naturalized citizenship.

A Vague and Flexible Threat

This is an important moment in immigration history, as it reveals that the definition of “white” was determined to be flexible and subjective, therefore always available to use as a barrier to legal status for anyone who was found to be objectionable. 

Whatever your views on immigration are presently, the case of Bhagat Singh Thind is important for another, more essential reason. Yes, he was born in India. Yes, he came to the United States. He was not “white” according to the reasoning of the Court. His dress, his features, his hair and skin did not conform to the “common understanding” of white. And yes, he did fight for the United States, in uniform, in World War One. (This reason alone should have rallied conservatives to his cause. Alas, they were silent.) 

More importantly, Thind was someone, anyone who did not conform. As such he was rejected as “not eligible” for citizenship. The definition being vague represents a threat to the freedom of everyone in the United States. If the Court can rely upon a subjective and flexible definition of citizenship, it can flex and exclude anyone, at any time.

Thind is a lesson in how racism pervades even the legal system. It is also a lesson on why we all need to be eternally vigilant against the corrosive influence of racism everywhere. It is about Thind, but it is larger than any one person. This case throws back the veneer of impartiality, revealing the history of immigration has always been the history of racism on America, whether Americans want to admit it or not.


Source: 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.

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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