United States v. Wong Kim Ark

United States v. Wong Kim Ark

By Fanny Wong, New York

In October 1895, Wong Kim Ark was lucky he didn’t get sick and die on his ten-week journey on the steamship Coptic from China to San Francisco. The third-class hold was crowded and poorly ventilated. He was eager to return to his small apartment on Sacramento Street in the city he loved. He missed everything about his city—San Francisco, even its fog.

At age 22, Wong had already visited China several times. So when he arrived at the dock, he was shocked to find out that he would not be allowed to land. How could the Collector of Customs, Mr. John Wise, not allow him to land? True, this man was known to be against Chinese immigration. But Wong’s identification paper was in good order. He even had three white residents vouch he was born in the city and was a good resident.

Wise had detained Wong on the grounds that he was not an U.S. citizen. And, Wong became a prisoner on the ship.

Wong Kim Ark, courtesy of the National Archives

Wong was born in San Francisco in 1873 to parents of Chinese descent. Around 1881, the parents had returned to China after a 20-year stay in San Francisco. However, Wong had chosen to stay in the United States, and now he found himself in a dire situation after another trip to China.

Fortunately, an aid association, The Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, was ready to help him. Its lawyers argued that his rights as a citizen were being violated. The Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1868, stated, “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and the State wherein they reside…”

The U.S. Solicitor General, Mr. Holmes Conrad, disagreed and appealed the case all the way to the Supreme Court. He argued that Wong’s parents were subjects of the emperor of China and by extension Wong was also the subject of the emperor.

When the case was argued in 1897, the Supreme Court justices were, Stephen Field, John Harland, Horace Gray, Melville Fuller, David Brewer, Henry Brown and Rufus Peckham. The justices debated whether American citizenship should be based on the principle of “right of blood” (jus sanguinis) or “right of the soil” (jus soli). The Supreme Court did not agree with the Solicitor General and ruled in favor of Wong. Justice Horace Gray wrote the opinion on behalf of a 6-2 majority. The court established the concept of jus soli—the citizenship of children born in the United States to non-citizens.

The cloud over his citizenship had disappeared forever!

Wong’s landmark case set a very important precedent. It remains today the definitive interpretation of the 14th Amendment’s birthright provision. It affects all the children born to legal and illegal immigrant parents. It is reasonable to say that Wong never expected his case to have such long lasting and important consequence. Immigrants may not know his name, but they certainly know the rights of their children born in the United States.

—By Fanny Wong, Chinese American author and long-time contributor to Skipping Stones, New York.

1868: The 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution ratified.
1882: The Chinese Exclusion Act signed by President Arthur. It restricted entry and immigration of Chinese labor, both skilled and unskilled, into the United States.

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