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Nikolas Bowie & Norah Rast, The Imaginary Immigration Clause, 120 Mich. L. Rev. 1419 (2022).


Abstract: For the past century, the Supreme Court has skeptically scrutinized Congress’s power to enact healthcare laws and other domestic legislation, insisting that nothing in the Constitution gives Congress a general power to “regulate an individual from cradle to grave.” Yet when Congress regulates immigrants, the Court has contradictorily assumed that Congress has “broad, undoubted power” to do whatever it thinks necessary—even though no clause of the Constitution gives Congress any specific immigration power. The Court has explained this discrepancy with reference to the Chinese Exclusion Case, an 1889 decision in which it allegedly held that Congress possesses “sovereign” power to regulate immigrants beyond Congress’s ordinary enumerated powers. Absent this imagined Immigration Clause, the Court has offered no explanation for its anomalous review of Congress’s immigration laws. This Article contests this traditional reading of the Chinese Exclusion Case as well as the consequences that have followed from it. Throughout the first century of congressional and judicial resistance to Congress’s power to regulate immigration, there was a broad consensus that Congress had no freestanding power to regulate immigrants beyond its ordinary powers to regulate everyone else. Far from disrupting this consensus, the author of the Chinese Exclusion Case adhered to it before, during, and after his opinion. It was not until the mid-twentieth century that the Supreme Court retroactively misread the Chinese Exclusion Case to authorize an extraconstitutional federal immigration power. Yet these misreadings have never explained why the Court invalidates ordinary domestic legislation even as it defers to federal immigration laws. In contrast with scholars and immigration advocates who have sought to apply the Court’s ordinarily skeptical scrutiny to the immigration context, we argue that this history highlights the flaws of relying on judicial review to protect disenfranchised minorities from a hostile and overzealous Congress. This review has functioned to muffle the serious legislative debate that animated the resistance to the first century of federal immigration restrictions. Rather than ask the courts to limit federal immigration laws just as they limit federal healthcare laws, we therefore argue that Congress itself should rethink whether Article I permits the expanse of its immigration laws in effect today.