“I Am An American” Wong Kim Ark decision 28 March 1898

It looks like Jonah and Wyatt have discovered a biscuit in his back pocket. Jonah has heritage from Canada and Scotland. Wyatt has cultural ties to the Basque region of Spain and Australia… though they were BORN IN THE U.S.A.

The court decided United States v. Wong Kim Ark on March 28, 1898. For 120 years since, anyone born in the United States, regardless of their race or class, or the immigration status of their parents—except for the children of foreign diplomats—instantly becomes a U.S. citizen.

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.

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.

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.”

7 thoughts on ““I Am An American” Wong Kim Ark decision 28 March 1898

    1. Gave me a chance to do a bit of legal research. The case is important though overlooked. I’m glad you found it interesting.


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