Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Who was Wong Kim Ark? How a son of immigrants helped define who is a U.S. citizen

Wong Kim Ark
Wong Kim Ark
Photo from Wikipedia Commons

At the heart of the coming battle over the constitutional right to U.S. citizenship for everyone born in this country is how the 14th Amendment, adopted in 1868, is interpreted. And at the heart of that interpretation is a 112-year-old Supreme Court decision, based on a lawsuit filed by a young man from San Francisco named Wong Kim Ark.

Wong is relatively little known to history. But his case, decided in 1898, affirmed the right to citizenship for the children of Chinese immigrants, at time barred from naturalizing - and set a precedent for all children of immigrants, regardless of their parents' status.

Wong was in his early twenties, a cook by trade, when he crossed paths with immigration officials. He was born in 1873 and raised in San Francisco by his Chinese immigrant parents who, eight years after the passage of the discriminatory Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, engaged in what today might be called attrition through enforcement: After 20 years in the United States, they packed their bags, boarded a westbound steamship and moved back to China.

Their son, though, knew no other home but California. Upon his parents' departure in 1890, he briefly accompanied them back to their native country, then returned to San Francisco without incident. Four years later, when he was around 21, he decided to visit them again. He left in 1894, returning in August of the following year on a steamship called the Coptic. It was upon his ship's return to San Francisco that he ran into trouble.

Wong was prevented from landing by customs, according to court documents, "upon the sole ground that he was not a citizen of the United States." He was "restrained of his liberty," detained by customs and the steamship company. But he fought: Within less than two months of his detention, a writ of habeas corpus was filed on Wong's behalf, challenging the government officials' actions.

His case ultimately went from district court in Northern California to the U.S. Supreme Court. In March 1898, the court decided on his behalf, citing the 14th Amendment:

It is conceded that, if he is a citizen of the United States, the acts of Congress, known as the Chinese Exclusion Acts, prohibiting persons of the Chinese race, and especially Chinese laborers, from coming into the United States, do not and cannot apply to him.

The question presented by the record is whether a child born in the United States, of parents of Chinese descent, who, at the time of his birth, are subjects of the Emperor of China, but have a permanent domicil and residence in the United States, and are there carrying on business, and are not employed in any diplomatic or official capacity under the Emperor of China, becomes at the time of his birth a citizen of the United States by virtue of the first clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of 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 name has been coming up with greater frequency since some Republican state leaders announced plans earlier this month to challenge the 14th Amendment, which involves introducing bills in various states in hopes of forcing another Supreme Court review. Their goal is a reinterpretation that would lead to the denial of citizenship to children of undocumented immigrants.

In a recent opinion piece in the San Gabriel Valley Tribune, State Assembly member Mike Eng, a Democrat representing the valley's 49th District, wrote:

For many Asian Americans, and especially Chinese Americans, the current debate about birthright citizenship is a debate our community already knows.

That is because the vast majority of Asian Americans would not be U.S. citizens today save for the U.S. Supreme Court's 1898 decision in United States v. Wong Kim Ark, which affirmed that the birthright citizenship clause of the 14th Amendment applied even to U.S.-born children of Chinese and other foreign nationals who were legally barred from naturalizing.

As far as it's known, Wong went on with his life. He had children and they had children. A hundred years after the landmark decision that affirmed his citizenship, SF Weekly ran a story about his 20-year-old great-granddaughter, who went looking for Wong's immigration records at the National Archives and Records Administration in San Bruno on a request from her grandfather.

Alice Wong knew little of her ancestor until then. From the story:

She certainly was not prepared for the reception she got. Neil Thomsen, an archive employee who works with the Chinese Exclusion Act records, asked for her autograph. Then she was introduced to the entire staff: "This is Wong Kim Ark's great-granddaughter."

"I was like, 'Oh my God, what have I gotten myself into?' " remembers Wong, munching on a burger at Denny's. Hair pulled back in a ponytail, sweat shirt pulled down below her waist, Alice is the quintessential suburban post-adolescent. "I knew absolutely nothing about who the heck this guy was."

Other people know a lot about -- and owe a lot to -- Wong Kim Ark.