With the Passenger Cases, the Supreme Court struck down efforts by state lawmakers in New York and Massachusetts to impose a head tax on incoming immigrants. Four justices concluded that such taxes usurped congressional power to regulate commerce under Article I of the Constitution. Authority to legislate and to enforce immigration restrictions was thereby designated a matter of federal authority outside of state, county, or municipal jurisdiction.
Passenger Cases, 48 U.S. 7 How. 283 283 (1849)
Statutes of the states of New York and Massachusetts, imposing taxes upon alien passengers arriving in the ports of those states declared to be contrary to the Constitution and laws of the United States, and therefore null and void.
These were kindred cases, and were argued together . . . The opinions of the justices of this Court connect the two cases so closely, that the same course will be pursued in reporting them . . . .
The transportation of passengers is regulated by Congress. More than two passengers for every five tons of the ship or vessel are prohibited, under certain penalties, and the master is required to report to the collector a list of the passengers from a foreign port, stating the age, sex, and occupation of each, and the place of their destination . . . If the transportation of passengers be a branch of commerce, of which there can be no doubt, it follows that the act of New York, in imposing this tax is a regulation of commerce. It is a tax upon a commercial operation — upon what may in effect be called an import . . . .
The Constitution requires that all “duties and imposts shall be uniform,” and declares that “no preference shall be given by any regulation of commerce or revenue to the ports of one state over those of another” . . . .
These provisions impose restrictions on the exercise of the commercial power, which was exclusively vested in Congress, and it is as binding on the states as any other exclusive power with which it is classed in the Constitution . . . .
Except to guard its citizens against diseases and paupers, the municipal power of a state cannot prohibit the introduction of foreigners brought to this country under the authority of Congress.