Head Money Cases

Quick Reference

112 U.S. 580 (1885), argued 19–20 Nov. 1884, decided 8 Dec. 1885 by vote of 9 to 0; Miller for the Court. This case arose after Congress moved to assume greater control over immigration in the Immigration Act of 1882. Until that point, states had regulated the entry of immigrants. Though the states tended to be liberal in their admission of immigrants, concern about the potential financial burden of indigent immigrants prompted the biggest ports to impose head taxes or bonds upon ship captains to provide a fund for needy immigrants. In the Passenger Cases (1849) and Henderson v. Mayor (1876), the Supreme Court had struck down such regulations as an infringement on the federal commerce power. To alleviate the states’ financial responsibility, Congress in the act of 1882 imposed a federal head tax of fifty cents per immigrant, which was given to the states for the support of immigrants in distress.

Shippers challenged the constitutionality of the federal head tax, principally on the grounds that it was not applied uniformly throughout the United States nor did it raise revenue for the common defense and general welfare of the country. The Supreme Court rejected such arguments, reiterating its earlier holdings that immigration was a form of foreign commerce over which Congress had plenary power. The head tax was a “mere incident of the regulation of commerce” (p. 595) not an exercise of the taxing power. The money collected was closely related to the government's legitimate interest in regulating immigration. The Head Money Cases helped to consolidate federal control over immigration and also helped to broaden congressional power to impose taxes in carrying out other constitutional powers.

Lucy E. Salyer

Subjects: Law.

Reference entries