In the history of jurisprudence on US citizenship under the 14th Amendment and the rights and equal protection, the amendment confers, Wong’s story is largely unknown. But this is a mistake: the right of every person born on US soil is guaranteed by the 14th Amendment, thanks to Wong Kim Ark.
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.” 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.”
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.
At that time Wong Kim Ark was about 21 years old. He argued that since he was born in San Francisco, he was a citizen. Members of the Chinese community pooled their finances and hired several lawyers to represent Wong Kim Ark. His case went all the way to the Supreme Court, and the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that due to the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, since Wong Kim Ark was born in the United States, he was a citizen even though his parents were from China.
Wong’s case ended up in federal court. Anti-immigrant forces had been gearing up for a fight to win judicial sanction for their anti-Chinese laws, and Wong seemed like a perfect test case. They argued that an “accident of birth” couldn’t confer citizenship, on the grounds that Wong’s “education and political affiliations remained entirely alien to the United States.”
But the Supreme Court sided with Wong. Even the aggressively white supremacist justices—who just two years before had ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson that segregation was constitutional because blacks were “inferior socially” and thus could be discriminated against at will—could not argue against the plain language of the 14th Amendment. It was clear, Justice Horace Gray wrote for the 6-2 majority, that even before that amendment “all white persons, at least, born within the sovereignty of the United States, whether children of citizens or of foreigners, excepting only children of ambassadors or public ministers of a foreign government, were native-born citizens of the United States.” And the amendment had settled the question for black people. The only question was whether it applied to everyone. And the court said it did. The congressional framers of the amendment, Gray noted, had even explicitly said during debate, back in 1868, that birthright citizenship was intended to apply “to the children begotten of Chinese parents in California.”
This principle, the justices found, was firmly rooted in English Common Law, American tradition, and practicality. After all, they wrote, if they interpreted it any differently, they would be forced to “deny citizenship to thousands of persons of English, Scotch, Irish, German or other European parentage who have always been considered and treated as citizens of the United States.”
But that story has never been simple. Wong would never get to freely enjoy the benefits of citizenship. He was still required to show extra documentation—including the signatures of white people affirming his birthplace—every time he came and left the country. The United States would invade China several times over the next decades. Wong is believed to have finally gone back to China for good, dying there after World War II.
The Supreme Court decision of Wong Kim Ark is important because often race is used as an obstacle in establishing citizenship for other Asian Americans and people of color. The Supreme Court ruled that birth in the United States establishes citizenship. The Wong Kim Ark case supports his statement of “I am an American.” Even after the Supreme Court ruling was in favor of Kim Ark, he had to carry a certificate of identity “to prove he was an American.” Racism was still strong in the United States.