Countless Americans owe their citizenship to the courage of Wong Kim Ark. The case he took to the U.S. Supreme Court 125 years ago would successfully change American immigration law as it affirmed every person born on US soil is protected by the 14th Amendment.
Born to a San Francisco merchant during the height of the Chinese Exclusion era in the early 1870s, Wong challenged a court ruling that denied Chinese immigrants the right to become naturalized citizens, reported Smithsonian Magazine.
It happened after Wong’s family moved back to China in 1890, but their son would attempt to return to California several years later in 1895. That’s when custom inspector John H Wise stopped and detained Wong at a San Francisco port and refused to allow him entry.
Even with a departure statement attesting to Wong’s identity and proof of US citizenship, he was denied entry by Wise.
This was during the height of the Chinese Exclusion era which caused frequent hardships for Chinese Americans and immigrants. Wise was well-known for his anti-Chinese sentiment and once called himself, “a zealous opponent of Chinese immigration,” according to University of Connecticut law professor Bethany Berger in her paper, Birthright Citizenship on Trial: Elk v. Wilkins and United States v. Wong Kim Ark.
Historian Erica Lee said Wise prevented Wong from going back home because he wanted the U.S. government to bar Chinese Americans and immigrants from coming into the U.S. altogether. His concerted efforts stemmed from a long history of racism and xenophobia predominant during this exclusion era. Politico reported that Wise was the nephew of a former governor of Virginia, Henry A. Wise, who ordered the murder of slavery abolitionist John Brown. Like his nephew, he pushed for harsher restrictions on Chinese immigrants entering the United States than federal law demanded.
Unable to disembark, Wong found himself stranded in the San Francisco Bay on multiple steamer ships for five months, Berger wrote. In January 1896, the U.S. District Court of the Northern District of California released him on bond.
The landmark case started rolling after Wong contacted representatives from the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, also known as the Chinese Six Companies. Back then, the CCBA served as mutual aid for Chinese immigrants thanks to a collective of Chinese business owners that provided legal representation for people with civil rights cases.
The CCBA gave Wong the services of Thomas D. Riordan who filed a habeas corpus on his behalf in the federal district court. Authorities released Wong from custody after Riordan cited the 1884 Look Tin Sing case, which affirmed that children born in the United States are automatically a citizen regardless of ancestry.
Wong’s case also hinged on the interpretation of the 14th Amendment to grant citizenship to all children by “right of soil,” also known as jus soli.
However, the Department of Justice appealed the decision to the Supreme Court. Pressure from Chinese exclusionists within the federal government streamlined the appeal to use the legal proceeding as a way to overturn the jus soli principle and instead, determine citizenships by “right of blood,” or jus sanguinis.
Lead attorneys on the opposing side, Solicitor General Holmes Conrad and Counsel George Collins, deemed Wong’s citizenship ineligible under the jus sanguinis statute. Some White supremacists interpreted citizenship by jus soli would allow Black and Chinese Americans the right to vote, thus threatening White American suffrage and political representation.
Collins echoed this racist notion in his opening arguments stating, “should be some honor and dignity in American citizenship that would be sacred from the foul and corrupting taint of a debasing alienage.”
The government intended to go after Wong’s birthright citizenship, rather than his identity. Hoping suffrage rights and the jus sanguinis would strengthen their argument, federal lawyers claimed Wong’s parents were “subjects of the emperor of China,” and by blood relation, he was too.
But on March 28, 1898, Wong’s case swung in his favor with 6-2 decision extending the right to citizenship for children of immigrant born in the United States. In a majority opinion issue, Justice Horace Gray wrote that the 14th Amendment is “in clear words and in manifesto intent, includes the children born, within the territory of the United States, of all other person, of whatever race or color, domiciled within the United States.”
He also wrote that to not uphold birthright citizenships would potentially deny the thousands of White citizens born from English, Scottish, Irish, German, or other white European families.
In 1901, deportation officials in El Paso arrested Wong again for similar charges that would take four months for him to win and declare his U.S. citizenship once more, according to Berger. In 1904, Wong’s four sons tried to enter the United States with him before being detained at Angel Island in the San Francisco Bay. Only one appealed the ruling and won, while the others remained at Angel Island for weeks.
The same story repeats itself for other Asian Americans fighting for U.S. citizenship. In the Ozawa v. United States (1922) case, Justice George Sutherland argued against Takao Ozawa, a Japanese immigrant who challenged the parameters of a “free white person,” NPR reports. Sutherland delivered the order that people considered “White” must be “confined to persons of the Caucasian Race.”
A year later in the United States v. Bhahat Singh Thind (1923) case, the Supreme Court ruled against Thind, a Sikh immigrant from India, after a naturalization examiner denied his citizenship because of his skin color. Sutherland contradicted his own opinion he made in the Ozawa v. United States because Thind was “high-caste Hindu stock, born in Punjab, one of the extreme northwestern districts of India, and classified by certain scientific authorities as of the Caucasian or Aryan race.”
Now fast forward a century later, where in 2017 neo-Nazis and White nationalists chanted “blood and soil” with tiki torches in Charlottesville, Virginia. President Trump in 2019 posed the possibility of ending birthright citizenships with an executive order. More recently in 2022, when the Supreme Court declined to overturn the xenophobic clauses from a century ago that bar American Samoans from securing birthright citizenships today.
The platform of the Republican Party in Texas calls for changes to the 14th Amendment to eliminate “birth tourism” and “anchor babies” by giving citizenship only to families with at least one biological parent who is a U.S. citizen, reports El Paso matters.
The attempts to reverse more than 120 years of settled law are becoming more pervasive and coded with anti-Asian rhetoric.
Author and expert on immigration and constitution law at American University told Smithsonian Magazine that Wong’s ongoing struggles signaled the U.S. government’s refusal to see native-born children of immigrants as citizens.
“Wong Kim Ark’s victory in the Supreme Court was only the start of his family’s struggle to establish their right to U.S. citizenship,” Frost said.
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