Wong Kim Ark

Wong Kim Ark
Wong Kim Ark
Source: Wikipedia

“We’re the only country in the world where a person comes in and has a baby, and the baby is essentially a citizen of the United States.... It’s ridiculous…. And it has to end.”

—Donald Trump[1]

The Depression of 1873 caused widespread unemployment, wage cuts, and labor strikes in the United States. Chinese laborers, among others, were made scapegoats for the difficulties white working men were facing. A wave of anti-Chinese sentiment set in, with the slogan “the Chinese must go” spreading in California. Under pressure, Congress passed, and President Chester A. Arthur signed into law, the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, barring Chinese workers from entering the US and denying citizenship to Chinese immigrants already in the country.

It is against this backdrop of the “exclusion era” that the story of Wong Kim Ark unfolds, and because of him that the birthright provision of the 14th Amendment is well-settled law in the US today.

Wong was born in San Francisco, California, in 1873 to Chinese immigrants. His father was a merchant with a store on Sacramento Street, above which the family lived. Faced with the decline of his business, Wong’s father took his family back to China, but Wong, unsatisfied with his prospects there, returned several years later to California to work as a cook.

In 1894, Wong traveled to China for a temporary visit, bringing with him all the documentation he thought he would need to be allowed to return to California: an affidavit, signed by US citizens, i.e., white men, attesting that he was “well known to us” and that he was indeed born in the US, specifically in the “City and County of San Francisco, State of California.” [2]

When he sailed back to San Francisco on the Coptic in 1895, however, he was denied entry and detained on the vessel by John Wise, a customs collector and known opponent of Chinese immigration.

Fortunately for Wong, Chinese immigrants in San Francisco had an aid organization, the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (known as the “Six Companies”), assisting them. Since Wong was being held captive on a ship in San Francisco Bay, the attorneys for the Six Companies filed a writ of habeas corpus, arguing that Wong was being restrained in violation of his rights as a US citizen.

The US Solicitor General, Holmes Conrad, disagreed and appealed the case all the way to the Supreme Court, arguing that Wong was barred entry under the Chinese Exclusion Act. In addition, Conrad maintained that Wong was not a US citizen because his parents were “Chinese persons, and subjects of the emperor of China” and, by extension, Wong was “also a Chinese person, and subject of the emperor of China.” [3]

In the landmark decision of United States v. Wong Kim Ark, Justice Horace Gray, writing for the majority, found that Wong was, in fact, a natural born citizen of the United States as he was physically born on US soil regardless of his parents’ origins. United States v. Wong Kim Ark provided, and remains today, the definitive interpretation of the 14th Amendment’s birthright provision, which states:

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside.

In the history of jurisprudence on US citizenship under the 14th Amendment and the rights and equal protection, the amendment confers, stretching from Dred Scot to Bakke, Wong’s story is largely unknown. But this is a mistake: the quote at the top of this page did not originate in the “exclusion era” of the 1880s but in 2015. [4] Despite the ignorance of the quote, however, the right of every person born on US soil is guaranteed by the 14th Amendment, thanks to Wong Kim Ark.

[1] Fred Barbash, “Birthright citizenship: A Trump-inspired history lesson on the 14th Amendment,” Washington Post, October 30, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/history/2018/10/30/birthright-citizenship-trump-inspired-history-lesson-th-amendment/.

[2] Barbash, "Birthright citizenship."

[3] US v. Wong, 169 US 649 (1898).

[4] Barbash, "Birthright citizenship."