Wong Kim Ark was born in San Francisco around 1870. His parents were Chinese immigrants but were not allowed to apply for U.S. citizenship. Wong made two trips to China in 1890 and 1894. On the first return to the U.S., he was readmitted with no problem. On his second return to the U.S., he was denied admission saying he was not a U.S. resident because his parents were not U.S. citizens.
From the beginning of the U.S., those born in the U.S. were considered to be citizens excluding slaves and American Indians. The common law presumption of citizenship was upheld in a case in New York.
Following the Civil War, when the 14th Amendment was approved, birthright citizenship was spelled out in the Constitution: “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 was selected as a test of the extent of the 14th Amendment. The case of the citizenship status of a person born in the U.S. to alien parents was never decided by the Supreme Court.
In 1898 the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 6-2 decision, agreed that Wong was a U.S. citizen, ruling against the Federal government. What complicated the case was that Congress had passed the Chinese Exclusion Act which barred Chinese laborers from entering the U.S. The Supreme Court ruled essentially that Congress could not violate the essence of the 14th Amendment as it had done using the Chinese Exclusion Act to deny birthright citizenship.
Even with the Supreme Court ruling, Wong had trouble reentering the U.S. when he went back and forth to China. He was required to have signatures of white persons attesting to the fact that he was a citizen.
Since the Wong decision, the concept of birthright citizenship had not been seriously challenged for over 100 years. In the 21st century, the issue of birthright citizenship has again become a political issue. But for now, millions of Americans owe their citizenship to Wong Kim Ark, a common man who was willing to defend his right to be an American citizen. Hidden heroes come in all varieties. They are like all of us but had the courage to stand up for what is right.
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“You obviously cannot do that… I think in this case the 14th Amendment is pretty clear.”– Paul Ryan (Republican Speaker of the House in response to Donald Trump who proposed the use of an Executive Order to deny children of illegal aliens the right of citizenship.)