According to a recent news report, a Florida law that went into effect about a year ago bars Chinese citizens that are not permanent residents of the United States from acquiring real estate in the state.

This immediately reminded me that the state of California, where I currently reside, once led the nation in establishing alien land laws in the form of the Alien Land Law of 1913, also known as the Webb-Haney Act. This was primarily designed to prevent Japanese immigrants from acquiring California farm land, but in effect barred land ownership by immigrants of multiple East Asian nationalities, as Wikipedia points out.

When comparing and contrasting contemporary laws with historical ones, I consider it important to consult primary sources instead of relying solely on summaries and characterizations in secondary and tertiary literature. While it took me longer than expected, I managed to track down the full text of the 1913 law:

W. F. Henning, James H. Deering, General Laws of California, 2nd ed. San Francisco: Bender-Moss Comp. 1914, p. 176:

ACT 156 — An act relating to the rights, powers and disabilities of aliens and of certain companies, associations and corporations with respect to property in this state, providing for escheats in certain cases, prescribing the procedure therein, and repealing all acts or parts of acts inconsistent or in conflict herewith. (Approved May 19, 1913. Stats. 1913 p. 206. In effect August 10, 1913.)

Ownership of land by aliens.
§ 1. All aliens eligible to citizenship under the laws of the United States may acquire, possess, enjoy, transmit and inherit real property, or any interest therein, in this state, in the same manner and to the same extent as citizens of the United States, except as otherwise provided by the laws of this state.

Right to acquire and lease lands.
§ 2. All aliens other than those mentioned in section one of this act may acquire, possess, enjoy and transfer real property, or any interest therein, in this state, in the manner and to the extent and for the purposes prescribed by any treaty now existing between the government of the United States and the nation or country of which such alien is a citizen or subject, and not otherwise, and may in addition thereto lease lands in this state for agricultural purposes for a term not exceeding three years.


The 1913 law was tightened and penalties were added in a 1920 state statute that was placed on the ballot in California as Proposition 1 for the November 2, 1920 election. It was approved by 74% of voters.

W. H. Hyatt (ed.), Henning's General Laws of California, 3rd ed., Vol. 1, San Francisco: Bender-Moss Comp. 1921, p. 59:

ACT 156 — An act relating to the rights powers and disabilities of aliens and of certain companies associations and corporations with respect to property in this state providing for escheats in certain cases, prescribing the procedure therein, requiring reports of certain property holdings to facilitate the enforcement of this act, prescribing penalties for violation of the provisions hereof, and repealing all acts or parts of acts inconsistent or in conflict herewith.

History: Initiative act submitted to the people at the general election of November 2, 1920 and adopted. In effect December 9, 1920.


It is clear from section 2 that the law prohibited land ownership by aliens ineligible to citizenship, unless a bilateral treaty between the United States and their country of origin specified otherwise. I am not aware of any such treaties, so this may have been a forward-looking provision?

What federal statute(s) defined which aliens were ineligible for citizenship at the time the 1913 California Alien Land Law was passed?

I have a hard time finding out, as sources I consulted focus on the concept of ineligibility to citizenship based on federal laws that were passed later, for example in 1923. I am aware of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, leading me to believe that there may have been laws on the books that made certain groups of immigrants to the Unites States ineligible for citizenship, yet have found no evidence of such laws so far.

It would be helpful if answers would provide historical context for relevant statues instead of simply enumerating them, and it would be ideal if links to the statute text(s) at freely accessible websites could be provided.

  • On what basis do you assert that "clearly there must have been additional statutes in play that barred other East Asians"? That's not clear to me at all and Wikipedia seems to state the contrary.
    – Brian Z
    Commented Jun 19 at 13:47
  • At least a few Asians (Japanese and Filipino) were naturalized as citizens in the nineteenth century.... so is the whole question ibased on a false assumption without evidence then, or what am I missing?
    – Brian Z
    Commented Jun 19 at 16:20
  • @BrianZ Some judges held that "free white person" mean "no blacks" and nothing else. Whiteness of a Different Color is good on the complexities.
    – Mary
    Commented Jun 22 at 18:27

1 Answer 1


The Naturalization Act of 1790 stated that "any alien, being a free white person,” could be naturalized.

The Naturalization Act of 1870 added "aliens of African nativity and to persons of African descent" as eligible.

These were the laws in place for 1913. Not until 1940 did laws begin to include various Asians, and only in the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 were all nationalities included.

  • @njuffa That might be better as a follow up question.
    – Schwern
    Commented Jun 19 at 2:49
  • 1
    That would get into the courts' decisions. And it was, indeed, complicated.
    – Mary
    Commented Jun 19 at 3:21

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