The Chinese American cook whose Supreme Court case changed who gets to be a citizen

Wong Kim Ark, document
Documentation that certified that Wong Kim Ark was able to leave the United States and return.National Archives
  • Born in San Francisco, Wong Kim Ark was detained trying to return to the US after visiting family in China.

  • His legal team argued that the "subject to the jurisdiction thereof" clause in the Fourteenth Amendment extended to children born on US soil.

  • His 1898 Supreme Court case set the precedent of birthright citizenship in the US.

In 1898, a Chinese American cook by the name of Wong Kim Ark challenged the Fourteenth Amendment, thereby forever changing who is entitled to citizenship in the United States.

The case Wong Kim Ark v. the United States made its way to the Supreme Court in March 1897, where Wong, who was born in San Francisco, challenged the substance of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The amendment was passed in 1868 after the Civil War to extend citizenship to newly emancipated Black people. Ark's legal team argued that the amendment applied to all children born on US soil, not just emancipated Black people.

In March 1898, the Supreme Court voted 6-2 in Ark's favor resulting in birthright citizenship in the US today.

Wong Kim Ark, document
An application submitted by Wong Kim Ark, addressed to the Commissioner of Immigration at San Francisco.National Archives

Wong Kim Ark was born in San Francisco to Chinese immigrants 

Wong, a Chinese American born in San Francisco, had left the US in 1894 to visit his parents, who moved back to China. His parents were Chinese citizens living in the US, but they could not become US citizens because of the Naturalization Act of 1802, which limited naturalization to "free white" immigrants only.

Upon returning to the US in 1895, Ark was detained at the Port of San Francisco for months before the Chinese Six Companies, a Chinese American business advocacy group, picked up the case. From there, it went to the US District Court.

At the time, the US Appeals Court had just ruled in favor of Look Tin Eli in the case of Look Tin Sing. Similarly to Wong, Look Tin Eli was born in the US and denied entry back into the country after visiting China. This was in 1884, two years after the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act which placed a 10-year ban on Chinese laborers immigrating to the US. This was the first major law restricting immigration in American history. Because of these new restrictions, Look was told he was required to carry a "necessary certificate of citizenship," which he lacked. He won his case in 1884, with Justice Stephen Field declaring that children born in the US are citizens regardless of ancestry.

The case of Look Tin Eli became an important decision that was cited in Wong Kim Ark's case in front of the Supreme Court four years later.

Wong Kim Ark
An application submitted by Wong Kim Ark, addressed to the Commissioner of Immigration at San Francisco.National Archives

According to the book "Laws Harsh as Tigers: Chinese Immigrants and the Shaping of Modern Immigration Law," by Lucy E. Salyer, attorneys like George Collins, who believed that people born of "alien parents" should not be considered citizens, were looking to bring a Chinese birthright citizen case to the Supreme Court. In the American Law Review in 1895, Collins criticized the Look Tin Sing ruling and the federal government's unwillingness to challenge it.

A few years later, Ark's counsel argued that the clause in Section One of the Fourteenth Amendment that reads, the "[a]ll persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof" are citizens should also apply to children born in the US to parents who are not citizens. As argued, the amendment is written broadly and does not specify any race or ethnicity, with one jarring exception: Section Two of the amendment includes a clause that reads, "excluding Indians not taxed." Indigenous people who lived on tribal lands were therefore denied citizenship until the Indian Citizenship Act was passed in 1924.

Following the Wong Kim Ark case, the Supreme Court ruled that any child born on US soil is a US citizen unless they are born on a public ship, their parents are foreign diplomats, or are citizens of an enemy nation trying to take over the US.

Attorneys have said it was one of the most critical cases in US Constitutional law.

As far as what happened to Wong, his citizenship was still questioned after that case in 1898. He would frequently go back and forth to China, eventually getting married and having children. However, every time he returned to the US, he'd have to show extra documentation to prove his US citizenship, even having to show signatures of white citizens affirming his citizenship, according to Politico. It is believed that Wong returned to China where he eventually died.

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