December 13th, 1918

United States Declares Indian Immigrants Non-White and Ineligible for Citizenship

Bhagat Singh Thind, an Indian Sikh man born in Punjab, migrated to the United States in 1913. After enlisting in the U.S. Army, Thind applied for citizenship in 1920 and was approved by the U.S. District Court in Oregon. Though he entered the country prior to the Immigration Restriction Act of 1917, which barred immigration from Asia, the Bureau of Naturalization appealed his citizenship and the case went to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Thind had filed for citizenship under the Naturalization Act of 1906, which said that citizenship is available for “free whites.” Thind argued to the Supreme Court that, under anthropological classifications of the time, Indians of the “high caste” from his native region of Punjab were “Aryan,” and thus white for purposes of American law. The Court conceded that, ethnologically, Indians were “Aryan” and thus Caucasian; however, the court ruled that the words “white people” in American statutory language had to be taken at their common meaning, and that “the average man knows perfectly well that there are unmistakable and profound differences.” The Court reasoned that Indians are not able to assimilate the way more typical “white” immigrants can, and held that a scientific study cannot determine citizenship. As a result, they held that Thind was not white and was legally barred from becoming a U.S. citizen.

The decision had a significant impact. Many Indians who had previously obtained U.S. citizenship in the United States now had their citizenship revoked, and lost many rights and privileges as a result. In California, the 1913 Alien Land Act barred non-citizens from owning land, and Indian Americans in the state who lost their citizenship also lost their land. Follow the Thind decision, America’s Indian population dropped by half.