Words by Samantha Pak
The 442: A JoySauce column named after the military unit, designed to school you (in all the best ways) on accomplished Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders of the past. Asians have been shaping American history, culture, food, politics, identity, and more for centuries—it’s time we acknowledge what’s been left out of most textbooks.
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Under the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, everyone is guaranteed equal protection of the law, regardless of their citizenship status.
This precedent was set in 1886 by Chinese immigrants Lee Yick and Wo Lee after they refused to pay a fine for operating their laundry businesses without a permit.
The permit in question was required of all laundries in wooden buildings, according to a city of San Francisco ordinance. At a glance, it appeared straightforward. Laundries used hot stoves to boil water, so fires were known to happen. But a closer look at how the law was applied showed something other than safety was at play.
At the time, about 95 percent of the city’s 320 laundries were located in wooden buildings and about two-thirds of those were owned by Chinese people. Of the roughly 200 Chinese applicants, only one was approved for permit. On the other hand, only one of about 80 non-Chinese applicants was denied a permit.
Yick and Lee were each fined $10 for operating their businesses without permits. They refused to pay and were thrown into jail by sheriff Peter Hopkins. They sued Hopkins, saying his discriminatory enforcement of the ordinance violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment, which states no state shall “deprive any person of life, liberty or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” There’s no mention of a person’s citizenship status.
Yick’s and Lee’s suits were combined into one case, which was taken to the U.S. Supreme Court. On May 10, 1886, in the case of Yick Wo v. Hopkins, the court unanimously decided in the immigrants’ favor.
In his court opinion on the case, Justice T. Stanley Matthews wrote that while the law itself appears to be impartial, “if it is applied and administered by public authority with an evil eye and an unequal hand,” then it’s unconstitutional. Matthews also wrote that the ordinance was administered “with a mind so unequal and oppressive” the state was practically denying the pair the equal protection of the law guaranteed in the 14th Amendment.
The ruling opened doors for immigrants of all backgrounds to be integrated into American society, establishing a precedent for cases with similar issues affecting non-citizens. It’s also been cited more than 150 times, including to strike down several attempts in the south to limit the political rights of Black people.
Published on December 28, 2022
Words by Samantha Pak
Samantha Pak (she/her) is an award-winning Cambodian American journalist from the Seattle area and assistant editor for JoySauce. She spends more time than she’ll admit shopping for books than actually reading them, and has made it her mission to show others how amazing Southeast Asian people are. Follow her on Twitter at @iam_sammi and on Instagram at @sammi.pak.