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Exclusion from Within: Noncitizens and the Rise of Discriminatory Licensing Laws

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  09 November 2023

Allison Brownell Tirres*
Associate Professor, DePaul University College of Law, Chicago, IL; Visiting Associate Professor, Santa Clara University School of Law, Santa Clara, CA, United States Email:


In the United States in the early twentieth century, state and local laws discriminating on the basis of alienage proliferated. Progressive reformers, nativist groups, state legislatures, and city councils sought new methods for restricting noncitizen access to the workplace and the marketplace. As this article demonstrates, the primary vehicle they utilized was state and local licensing laws. Licensing proved to be a powerful tool of exclusion; by 1930, citizenship-based licensing restrictions were present in every state and most major cities. Noncitizens challenged some of these laws, pushing for greater protection of their constitutional rights. The resulting court contests over exclusionary licensing laws led to the creation of a new branch of legal doctrine, one that redefined the relationship between noncitizens and state power. This article highlights the significant and underappreciated role played by state and local laws in shaping the immigrant experience in the Progressive Era. It furthers our understanding of the licensing power and illuminates a pivotal moment in the development of immigrant rights. Today, noncitizens are still excluded from a range of economic activities due to licensing restrictions. This article explores the roots and the spread of this little understood – and still consequential – technique of exclusion.

© The Author(s), 2023. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of the American Bar Foundation

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