Article I, Section 8, Clause 4:
[The Congress shall have Power . . .] To establish an uniform Rule of Naturalization, and uniform Laws on the subject of Bankruptcies throughout the United States; . . .
The power of Congress
to exclude aliens from the United States and to prescribe the terms and conditions on which they come in is absolute, being an attribute of the United States as a sovereign nation.
That the government of the United States, through the action of the legislative department, can exclude aliens from its territory is a proposition which we do not think open to controversy. Jurisdiction over its own territory to that extent is an incident of every independent nation. It is a part of its independence. If it could not exclude aliens, it would be to that extent subject to the control of another power. . . . The United States, in their relation to foreign countries and their subjects or citizens, are one nation, invested with powers which belong to independent nations, the exercise of which can be invoked for the maintenance of its absolute independence and security throughout its entire territory. 1
Except for the Alien Act of 1798, 2 Congress went almost a century without enacting laws regulating immigration into the United States. The first such statute, in 1875, barred convicts and prostitutes 3 and was followed by a series of exclusions based on health, criminal, moral, economic, and subversion considerations. 4 Another important phase was begun with passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, 5 which was not repealed until 1943. 6 In 1924, Congress enacted into law a national origins quota formula which based the proportion of admittable aliens on the nationality breakdown of the 1920 census, which, of course, was heavily weighed in favor of English and northern European ancestry. 7 This national origins quota system was in effect until it was repealed in 1965. 8 The basic law remains the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, 9 which retains its essential structure while undergoing several significant revisions. These revisions have included a temporary legalization program for certain aliens without legal immigration status, employer sanctions, a general expansion and tightening of rules for removal, changes in categories of aliens who may enter temporarily, and more express provisions on federal-state cooperation in immigration enforcement.
Numerous cases underscore the sweeping nature of the powers of the Federal Government to exclude aliens and to deport aliens by administrative process. For example, in United States ex rel. Knauff v. Shaughnessy, 10 an order of the Attorney General excluding, on the basis of confidential information he would not disclose, a wartime bride, who was prima facie entitled to enter the United States, 11 was held to be unreviewable by the courts. Nor were regulations on which the order was based invalid as an undue delegation of legislative power.
Normally Congress supplies the conditions of the privilege of entry into the United States. But because the power of exclusion of aliens is also inherent in the executive department of the sovereign, Congress may in broad terms authorize the executive to exercise the power, e.g., as was done here, for the best interests of the country during a time of national emergency. Executive officers may be entrusted with the duty of specifying the procedures for carrying out the congressional intent. 12 However, when Congress has spelled out the basis for exclusion or deportation, the Court remains free to interpret the statute and review the administration of it and to apply it, often in a manner to mitigate the effects of the law on aliens. 13
Congress’s power to admit aliens under whatever conditions it lays down is exclusive of state regulation. The states
can neither add to nor take from the conditions lawfully imposed by Congress upon admission, naturalization and residence of aliens in the United States or the several states. State laws which impose discriminatory burdens upon the entrance or residence of aliens lawfully within the United States conflict with this constitutionally derived federal power to regulate immigration, and have accordingly been held invalid. 14 This principle, however, has not precluded all state regulations dealing with aliens. 15 The power of Congress to legislate with respect to the conduct of alien residents is a concomitant of its power to prescribe the terms and conditions on which they may enter the United States, to establish regulations for sending out of the country such aliens as have entered in violation of law, and to commit the enforcement of such conditions and regulations to executive officers. It is not a power to lay down a special code of conduct for alien residents or to govern their private relations. 16
Yet Congress is empowered to assert a considerable degree of control over aliens after their admission to the country. By the Alien Registration Act of 1940, Congress provided that all aliens in the United States, fourteen years of age and over, should submit to registration and finger printing and willful failure to comply was made a criminal offense against the United States. 17 This Act, taken in conjunction with other laws regulating immigration and naturalization, has constituted a comprehensive and uniform system for the regulation of all aliens. 18
An important benefit of this comprehensive, uniform regulation accruing to the alien is that it generally has precluded state regulation that may well be more severe and burdensome. 19 For example, in Hines v. Davidowitz, 20 the Court voided a Pennsylvania law requiring the annual registration and fingerprinting of aliens but going beyond the subsequently enacted federal law to require acquisition of an alien identification card that had to be carried at all times and to be exhibited to any police officer upon demand and to other licensing officers upon applications for such things as drivers' licenses. 21
Another decision voided a Pennsylvania law limiting those eligible to welfare assistance to citizens and an Arizona law prescribing a fifteen-year durational residency period before an alien could be eligible for welfare assistance. 22 Congress had provided, Justice Blackmun wrote for a unanimous Court, that persons who were likely to become public charges could not be admitted to the United States and that any alien who became a public charge within five years of his admission was to be deported unless he could show that the causes of his economic situation arose after his entry. 23 Thus, in effect Congress had declared that lawfully admitted resident aliens who became public charges for causes arising after their entry were entitled to the full and equal benefit of all laws for the security of persons and property and the states were disabled from denying aliens these benefits. 24
Unlike the exclusion proceedings, 25 deportation proceedings afford the alien a number of constitutional rights: a right against self-incrimination, 26 protection against unreasonable searches and seizures, 27 guarantees against ex post facto laws, bills of attainder, and cruel and unusual punishment, 28 a right to bail, 29 a right to procedural due process, 30 a right to counsel, 31 a right to notice of charges and hearing, 32 and a right to cross-examine. 33
Notwithstanding these guarantees, the Supreme Court has upheld a number of statutory deportation measures as not unconstitutional. The Internal Security Act of 1950, in authorizing the Attorney General to hold in custody, without bail, aliens who are members of the Communist Party of the United States, pending determination as to their deportability, is not unconstitutional. 34 Nor was it unconstitutional to deport under the Alien Registration Act of 1940 35 a legally resident alien because of membership in the Communist Party, although such membership ended before the enactment of the Act. Such application of the Act did not make it ex post facto, being but an exercise of the power of the United States to terminate its hospitality ad libitum. 36 And a statutory provision 37 making it a felony for an alien against whom a specified order of deportation is outstanding
to willfully fail or refuse to make timely application for travel or other documents necessary to his departure was not on its face void for
vagueness. 38 An alien unlawfully in the country
has no constitutional right to assert selective enforcement as a defense against his deportation. 39