In one of the most overlooked civil rights cases in American history, a son of Chinese immigrants who was born in the United States and barred from re-entering the country after a trip abroad took on the federal government and won a Supreme Court decision that affirmed the principle of birthright citizenship under the 14th Amendment.
Wong Kim Ark was nearly home. As the steamship Coptic slipped through the Golden Gate on an August day in 1895, the young cook could see the buildings huddled on the steep hills of San Francisco, the city where he was born and spent most of his life. Returning to the United States after spending nearly a year visiting family in China, the American-born son of Chinese immigrants clutched the one-page typewritten document that he believed would ensure his entry into a country that had shuttered its doors to those who looked, dressed and spoke like him.
Wong had been born in 1873 above the Sacramento Street storefront owned by his merchant father in the heart of San Francisco’s Chinatown. Wong’s parents had been among the tens of thousands of Chinese immigrants who came to the United States in the mid-1800s to build the railroads that stitched the country together, supply prospectors chasing fortunes in the California Gold Rush and work on farms feeding the growing population in the West.
A severe financial downturn in the years following the Panic of 1873 hardened American attitudes toward Chinese immigrants, who were blamed by the white working class for taking their jobs and causing their economic woes. “The Chinese must go!” became a common rallying cry in the years Wong spent growing up in San Francisco, and the xenophobia became enshrined in law when in 1882 President Chester A. Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which barred Chinese laborers from entering the country and becoming naturalized American citizens. Although Chinese merchants and professionals were still able to enter the country, the law marked the first time that the United States excluded a group of immigrants based on race or nationality.
The backlash proved too much for thousands of Chinese immigrants, including Wong’s family who joined the exodus back across the Pacific Ocean in 1890. The teenager, however, remained drawn to the land of his birth, and Wong returned to San Francisco later that year without incident.
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Five years later after a second visit to China, Wong expected his return to America would be just as seamless. After all, he had taken the precaution before departing San Francisco in November 1894 to prepare an identification document. The one-page typewritten sheet of paper, with his photograph affixed to the middle, was signed by a notary public and three white San Francisco residents who all attested that he was born in the city and well-known to them.
The document had been stamped and signed by an inspector upon his departure from San Francisco, but when Wong presented the paper to John Wise, the collector of customs in San Francisco who controlled immigration into the port, he was refused entry. In spite of Wong’s birth in the United States, Wise saw him as no more a citizen than the throngs of laborers born in China whom he legally barred from crossing the threshold into America.
For months Wong remained in detention as he was moved from ship to ship anchored in San Francisco Bay. Rather than accepting Wise’s decision, however, he decided to take on the United States government. Wong applied for a writ of habeas corpus, which was challenged by a U.S. attorney who wrote, “Wong Kim Ark has been at all times, by reason of his race, language, color and dress, a Chinese person.”
The case hinged on the interpretation of the 14th Amendment, which was ratified in 1868 and guaranteed citizenship and equal civil and legal rights to emancipated slaves and African-Americans in the wake of the Civil War. The amendment’s opening line—“All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States”—was also interpreted by lower courts as granting citizenship to children of citizens of foreign countries born on American soil.
When U.S. District Judge William Morrow sided with Wong, declaring him an American citizen and ordering his release, opponents within the federal government saw the legal proceeding as a test case that they could take all the way to the Supreme Court to overturn birthright citizenship.
In March 1897, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case of United States v. Wong Kim Ark. The justices debated whether American citizenship should be based upon the principle of “jus sanguinis” (“right of blood”) or “jus soli” (“right of the soil”). Government lawyers argued that because Wong’s parents were “subjects of the emperor of China,” by bloodlines he, too, was “a Chinese person and a subject of the emperor of China.”
On March 28, 1898, the court announced in a 6-2 decision that it sided with Wong and affirmed the right to citizenship for children of immigrants born in the United States. The Court ruled that “the American citizenship which Wong Kim Ark acquired by birth within the United States has not been lost or taken away by anything happening since his birth.”
The majority opinion written by Justice Horace Gray also affirmed that the amendment’s reach carried beyond African-Americans: “The Amendment, in clear words and in manifest intent, includes the children born, within the territory of the United States, of all other persons, of whatever race or color, domiciled within the United States.” In his dissent, Chief Justice Melville Fuller argued that “the true bond which connects the child with the body politic is not the matter of an inanimate piece of land but the moral relations of his parentage.”
The Supreme Court ruling and Wong’s decision to fight the federal government was a milestone in immigration law. Had the Court decided for the federal government, children of white immigrants at the turn of the 20th century would still have had a legal path to naturalization, but that wouldn’t have been the case for any sons and daughters of Chinese immigrant laborers, since they were denied a path to citizenship under the Chinese Exclusion Act.