DID YOU KNOW? – How a Chinese American Helped Define Citizenship

Did you know that this legal right was first upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in a case involving a Chinese-American?

Most Americans know that they are granted citizenship by virtue of being born on American soil. This is a legal concept called jus soli, (meaning “right by soil,”) which is established as a legal right in the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. But did you know that this legal right was first upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in a case involving a Chinese-American?

Wong Kim Ark was born in California in the 1870s to parents who were immigrants from China. During the 1890s, Wong worked as a cook in San Francisco but occasionally traveled back to China to visit his parents’ homeland.

Upon returning from one such visit in 1895, Wong found himself detained by U.S. Customs, who refused to allow him to return home. Because Wong Kim Ark’s parents were Chinese subjects, U.S. Customs argued that Wong Kim Ark could not be an American citizen despite being born on American soil. Accordingly, Wong was denied entry to the United States and was held aboard ships for several months off the coast of California while he appealed the decision. His attorneys challenged the denial of his U.S. citizenship and moved that his case be brought to court to address the issue of his unlawful detention.

The Courtroom

In court, Wong’s attorneys and the opposing U.S. attorneys supported differing interpretations of a phrase from the 14th Amendment. The 14th Amendment states that “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 attorneys argued that “subject to the jurisdiction thereof” merely meant that he was subject to U.S. law because his parents resided in the United States when he was born. The opposing attorneys argued that the “jurisdiction” referred to was political as well as legal, and claimed that because Wong’s parents were citizens of a foreign power, he could not have been fully subject to U.S. jurisdiction and therefore should be disqualified from citizenship.

At the district level, the judge found the arguments against Wong’s citizenship to be uncompelling and ruled that he was indeed a U.S. citizen by virtue of his birth on U.S. soil. The U.S. government appealed the ruling because they determined that this case would have widespread ramifications.

United States v. Wong Kim Ark (169 U.S. 649) came before the Supreme Court in 1897. As outlined in the court proceedings, the issue at stake was 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… residence in the United States… 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.”

The Ruling

The Supreme Court had never ruled previously on the citizenship status of children born in the United States to foreign parents. After deliberating the case, the Court ruled 6-2 in favor of Wong Kim Ark. They upheld the constitutional interpretation favoring the right to citizenship by birth on U.S. soil. The Court affirmed that since Wong’s parents were not foreign diplomats, enemy combatants or aboard foreign ships at the time of his birth, and were not employed in any capacity by the Chinese Emperor, that no exception could be upheld that could deny him his right to U.S. citizenship.

The groundbreaking decision in United States v. Wong Kim Ark was a significant step in the struggle to overcome prejudice and discrimination in this country, and upheld the principle outlined by Thomas Jefferson, “that all men are created equal.” Today, the law upholds that citizenship may be granted both by soil (jus soli) and by descent (jus sanguinis) to any eligible children, irrespective of race, ethnicity, or their parents’ national origin.

Chinese New Year is celebrated on February 5th this year, and marks the beginning of the Year of the Pig in the traditional Chinese Zodiac. Check out the festivities occurring right here in Phoenix! One to note – The 29th Annual Chinese Culture and Cuisine Festival 

Gong xi fa cai! (Happy Chinese New Year!)

The attorneys at Gillespie, Shields, Durrant & Goldfarb are experts in family, business and employment law. They are a fixture of the community and serve the Phoenix and Mesa areas. Schedule your consultation today.

Alexander Strub is a legal assistant and the lead content writer at Gillespie, Shields, Durrant & Goldfarb. He has a B.A. from Brigham Young University and an M.A. from the University of Missouri-Kansas City (both in History). He and his wife Annalee have been married for 11 years and have one daughter. Together they enjoy reading, listening to classical and world music, and visiting museums, cultural events, and world heritage sites

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