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United States v. Wong Kim Ark

A Question Of Birthright

The government claimed that Wong's parentage should determine his citizenship. Wong's parents were subjects of the Emperor of China at the time of his birth. Therefore, Wong was likewise a foreign subject. According to the appeal, Wong was also Chinese by reason of his "race, language, color and dress." Because he did not belong to any of the classes of Chinese allowed entry under immigration rules, he was technically considered to be a laborer and liable to the terms of the Chinese Exclusion Act.

These arguments were no more successful in Washington D.C. than they had been in San Francisco. The Court rejected the appeal on 28 March 1898, over a year after hearing the case. Writing for the majority, Justice Gray noted the Constitution's deep roots in English common law. By this tradition, all persons born within England's domain could expect protection from the King, to whom they were expected to owe their allegiance. Gray traced the lineage of this concept of determining citizenship by birthplace from its English origins to standard practice in the American states.

The Court found its strongest reason for affirming Wong's citizenship in the Fourteenth Amendment. Ratified by Congress in 1868, the amendment was designed to grant the rights of citizenship to persons of African descent who had been slaves prior to the Civil War. To the majority, Section I of the amendment was unequivocal:

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 in which they reside.

The Court recognized Congress's right to deny citizenship by passing naturalization laws. In cases where birth was the source of citizenship, however, the Court ruled that Congress had no power to remove a right granted by the Constitution.

Chief Justice Fuller and Justice Harlan dissented. Fuller considered citizenship to be a political concept, not a right defined by the Constitution. By treaty, both China and the United States had agreed that Chinese subjects could not become naturalized American citizens. Fuller cited both Chinese law--by which any Chinese rejecting status as an Imperial subject could be executed--and U.S. Supreme Court decisions upholding restrictive immigration policies. If foreign and U.S. laws prevented alien parents from becoming American citizens, Fuller reasoned, the Fourteenth Amendment could not arbitrarily impose citizenship on their children.

Wong Kim Arks' victory was of great importance to millions of children born in the United States to immigrant parents. However, it was a minor victory for Asian Americans. The Chinese Exclusion Act was renewed indefinitely in 1904 and was not repealed until 17 December 1943.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1883 to 1917United States v. Wong Kim Ark - The Locked Golden Gate, A Successful Writ, A Question Of Birthright, Further Readings