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UC Law Journal Begins Effort To Get Three States To Repeal Discriminatory Asian American Statutes

Date: Feb. 1, 2001
By: Carey Hoffman
Photo illustration by Dottie Stover
Phone: (513) 556-1825
Archive: Research News

Most people would agree that discrimination is wrong, but surprisingly, it is not always against the law. In fact, new research from the University of Cincinnati College of Law shows that in three states - Florida, New Mexico and Wyoming - discrimination remains written into the law.

Antiquated laws sanctioning legal discrimination measures against Asian Americans in those states were uncovered in research by the staff of the journal Immigration and Nationality Law Review, based out of the UC College of Law. Law students Megan Matsumura, Elizabeth Mulcahy and James MuetzelThe staff, made up of UC law students, is now launching efforts to make state lawmakers and other influential parties in those states aware of the existence of these discriminatory laws and to encourage their repeal.

Wyoming Governor Jim Geringer responded quickly, indicating his willingness to pursue the matter. Student groups from law schools in the three states cited have contacted the UC students, and a petition launched in support of repeal efforts has gained the signature of more than 100 law professors from around the country. Additionally, a number of Asian American civil rights groups have expressed their concerns over the discriminatory laws.

"The laws we are studying may be the last pieces of Jim Crow legislation still on the books anywhere in the United States," said Jack Chin, UC professor of law and general editor for the journal. "After Brown v. Board of Education declared racial segregation unconstitutional in 1954, most states repealed their racial laws. Unfortunately, there were so many provisions in so many different corners of the statute books that it has taken decades to catch them all. South Carolina and Alabama only repealed their prohibitions on interracial marriage in the last few years."

The rediscovered laws, which fall under the heading of Alien Land Laws, were generally enacted in the early part of the 1900s. The discriminatory laws in Florida and New Mexico are actually part of those states' constitutions. Wyoming's remaining discriminatory law is written in that state's statutes.

Alien Land Laws were a Jim Crow-era tool used in discrimination against Asian Americans. They legalized discrimination in forms such as school segregation, prohibition on interracial marriage, exclusion from desirable housing through racially restrictive covenants and, in their best known form, the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.

"The Anti-Asian Alien Land Laws we are looking at were particularly harsh; they were not aimed at all foreigners, just aliens of particular races," Chin said. "If persons of those races tried to purchase land, they could be imprisoned and have their property forfeited to the state. Because the United States economy was much more agricultural then than it is now, this cut Asian immigrants out of important opportunities."

In their message to lawmakers in the three states, the journal's staff argues that the existence of these laws sends a message, even if they are unenforced. Specifically, the laws needlessly insult citizens who may have once been affected by these laws and their descendants.

"I thought it was a good chance to really do something concrete to make a difference," said Elizabeth Mulcahy, one of the project leaders. The students took on this project when, in the course of exploring potential research topics for the journal, they discovered that not all of the old anti-Asian land laws had been repealed. These are the only such laws believed not yet repealed.

The students are currently working in all three states, getting in touch with legislators and civil rights groups in an effort to get bills introduced and build support for repeal of the old laws.

"This is an excellent chance for us to learn about the law in action," said James Muetzel, editor-in-chief for Immigration and Nationality Law Review. "As law students, so often we're reading cases from courts that have already been decided. We seldom have the opportunity to change the law."

"I hope the laws get repealed, and that sends a positive message to Asian people and all people about lawmakers willingness to recognize and eliminate racism from the law," Mulcahy added.

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