Part 2: Claiming Citizenship

Why should we care even about Asian American legal history? Who is Wong Kim Ark and what did he ever do for us?

To put it briefly and simply, in 1898 he challenged Congress’s discriminatory policies against the Chinese and won.

To read the landmark court case, check out Cornell University Law School’s break down of the case and decision. 

In case reading long court records isn’t your thing though, here are the facts:

Wong Kim Ark was born to two Chinese parents in the United States in 1873. In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which effectively shut down immigration from China to the US. In 1890, Wong made a brief trip to China with the intention of returning back to the US. He ensured he had the proper documentation to return, but when he tried re-entering the country, customs agents detained him. Wong ended up suing for wrongful detainment on the grounds that he was a US citizen, so the Exclusion Act did not apply to him. While the Federal District Court ruled in favor for Wong, the US appealed and the case was taken to the Supreme Court.

So what was the problem? The Fourteenth Amendment states,  “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.”

That seems pretty simple, right? Wong was born in San Francisco and had proof of his claim. The government and the dissenting opinion argued though that being born in the US was not good enough to be a citizen. Wong’s parents were not citizens and were believed to be loyal to the Chinese emperor. They claimed that being born in the US did not erase those loyalties. No one had ever challenged this section of the Amendment though, so the Supreme Court carefully examined the case.

Shockingly (or maybe not to us in the 21st century) they upheld the lower court’s decision. Wong was a citizen and the Exclusion Act could not be used to abridge the privileges of a US citizen. This was a major win for Americans born to immigrants and for the Chinese American community.93779de0241f4447d1ba57c46e67f219

Despite the win, Chinese Americans were still scrutinized and faced an extremely hostile environment. And although the Supreme Court ruled at natural born citizens applied to all persons born in the US, they did not address the problems and attitudes surrounding citizenship.

Was Wong really loyal to the Chinese emperor? Doubtful. But because he wasn’t white, his perceived foreignness could not be erased with a piece of paper and being born in the US. The US is referred to as a melting pot, but what are we melting into? There are still so many of us who stand out simply because of the color of our skin. Looking at Wong Kim Ark shows us how Chinese Americans took action against anti-Chinese attitudes. Even though they were successful, it wasn’t enough for other Americans to acce
pt them, and to some extent they still aren’t, which has spread to other Asian immigrant groups as well.

Reflection Question: How did the Wong Kim Ark case help Chinese Americans?

In case this wasn’t enough and you want to read even more on Wong Kim Ark case and its ramifications, feel free to check out this Washington Post article or this piece of legal scholarship.


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