• Last updated on November 10, 2022

The U.S. Supreme Court’s Wong Kim Ark decision held that children born in the United States, even to temporary sojourners, were subject to U.S. jurisdiction regardless of race or nationality. It effectively extended citizenship to any person born on U.S. soil, regardless of parentage.

Summary of Event

After the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865), the Constitution of the United States was amended to deal with the end of slavery and the legal status of the freed slaves. Under then-existing law, notably the 1857 decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857) Dred Scott v. Sandford, even free African Americans could not become citizens. The Thirteenth Amendment ended slavery. The Fourteenth Amendment, which was drafted to confer citizenship on the newly freed slaves and to protect their rights from infringement by state governments, begins: “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.” United States v. Wong Kim Ark (1898) Wong Kim Ark Citizenship, U.S.;qualifications for Chinese immigrants Wong Kim Ark Fourteenth Amendment;and Chinese Americans[Chinese Americans] [kw]United States v. Wong Kim Ark (Mar. 28, 1898) [kw]Wong Kim Ark, United States v. (Mar. 28, 1898) United States v. Wong Kim Ark (1898) Wong Kim Ark Citizenship, U.S.;qualifications for Chinese immigrants Wong Kim Ark Fourteenth Amendment;and Chinese Americans[Chinese Americans] [g]United States;Mar. 28, 1898: United States v. Wong Kim Ark[6310] [g]China;Mar. 28, 1898: United States v. Wong Kim Ark[6310] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Mar. 28, 1898: United States v. Wong Kim Ark[6310] [c]Government and politics;Mar. 28, 1898: United States v. Wong Kim Ark[6310] [c]Social issues and reform;Mar. 28, 1898: United States v. Wong Kim Ark[6310] [c]Civil rights and liberties;Mar. 28, 1898: United States v. Wong Kim Ark[6310] Fuller, Melville W. Gray, Horace Harlan, John Marshall

The Fourteenth Amendment ended neither racial prejudice nor various racially based legal discriminations. In 1882, 1884, and 1894, Congress passed a series of laws known as the Chinese Exclusion Acts Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 . These statutes were designed to keep persons of Chinese ancestry out of the United States. They were particularly aimed at the importation of Chinese laborers and at the “coolie” system—a form of indentured labor. The acceptance of low wages by imported Chinese immigrants angered many Americans.

Wong Kim Ark was born in San Francisco in 1873. His parents were Chinese subjects permanently domiciled in the United States. In modern terminology, they would have been called resident aliens. They had been in business in San Francisco and were neither employees nor diplomatic agents of the government of China. In 1890, they returned to China after many years in the United States. Wong Kim Ark also went to China in 1890, but he returned to the United States the same year and was readmitted to the country on the grounds that he was a U.S. citizen. In 1894, he again went to China for a temporary visit but was denied readmission to the United States on his return in August, 1895.

The federal government’s position was that under the Chinese Exclusion Acts, a Chinese person born to alien parents who had not renounced his previous nationality was not “born or naturalized in the United States” within the meaning of the citizenship clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. If the government’s position was correct, Wong Kim Ark was not a citizen of the United States and was not entitled to readmission to the country. Wong brought a Habeas corpus;in United States[United States] habeas corpus action against the government in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California. That court’s judgment in favor of Wong was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court by the government.

The case was decided on March 28, 1898. Justice Horace Gray Gray, Horace wrote the Supreme Court’s opinion for a 6-2 majority. Gray’s argument begins with the assumption that the citizenship clause of the Fourteenth Amendment has to be read in the context of preexisting law. The Court’s opinion begins with a long review of citizenship practices and legal customs. The U.S. tradition had been to distinguish between “natural-born” and naturalized citizens. This distinction came from English common law.

In England, for hundreds of years prior to the American Revolution (1775-1783), all persons born within the king’s realms except the children of diplomats and alien enemies were said to have been born under the king’s protection and were natural-born subjects. This rule was applied or extended equally to the children of alien parents. Moreover, the same rule was in force in all the English colonies in North America prior to the revolution, and was continued (except with regard to slaves) under the jurisdiction of the United States when it became independent. The first American law concerning naturalization was passed in the First Congress. It and its successor acts, passed in 1802, assumed the citizenship of all free persons born within the borders of the United States. It was not until the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Acts that any U.S. law had sought to alter the rule regarding natural-born citizens.

On the European continent, however, the law of citizenship was different. Most European countries had adopted the citizenship rules of ancient Roman law. Under the Roman civil law, a child takes the nationality of his or her parents. Indeed, when United States v. Wong Kim Ark reached the Supreme Court, the government argued that the European practice had become the true rule of international law as it was recognized by the great majority of the countries of the world.

This was the historical and legal context for the Fourteenth Amendment’s language“All persons born or naturalized in the United States. . .” (emphasis added). According to Justice Gray Gray, Horace , the purpose of the Fourteenth Amendment was to extend the rule providing citizenship for natural-born persons to the freed slaves and their children. The amendment did not establish a congressional power to alter the constitutional grant of citizenship. Gray’s opinion reviews many of the Court’s prior opinions upholding the principle. The Chinese Exclusion Acts, passed after the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment, could not affect the amendment’s meaning, according to the majority, and therefore did not affect the established rule of natural-born citizenship.

The grant of constitutional power to Congress to “establish a uniform rule of naturalization” did not validate the Chinese Exclusion Acts. Wong, as a natural-born citizen, had no need of being naturalized. The Court held that “Every person born in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, becomes at once a citizen of the United States, and needs no naturalization.” Moreover, the majority held that Congress’s power of naturalization is “a power to confer citizenship, not to take it away.” In other words, Congress had the power to establish uniform rules for naturalization but could not alter the plain-language and common-law meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment’s citizenship clause.

Chief Justice Melville W. Fuller.

(Library of Congress)

The dissenting justices saw the case differently. Chief Justice Melville Fuller Fuller, Melville W. wrote an extensive dissent in which Justice John Marshall Harlan Harlan, John Marshall joined. In their view, the common-law rule sprang from the feudal relationship between the British crown and children born within the realm. American law was not bound to follow the common-law rule, because there were differences between “citizens” and “subjects.” In a republic such as the United States, citizenship was a status created by and conferred by the civil law. Because nothing in U.S. law had explicitly endorsed the common-law principle of citizenship, the Fourteenth Amendment did not have to be read so as to include it. Fuller argued that Congress is free to pass statutes that define and interpret the citizenship clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. In the dissenters’ view, then, the Chinese Exclusion Acts could constitutionally limit the reach of the phrase “born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof.” Under this interpretation, Wong Kim Ark would not have been a citizen and his exclusion would have been constitutional.

Significance

The Court’s decision in this case was important because it stripped the government of the power to deny the citizenship of persons born in the United States of alien parents. It essentially meant that any person born on U.S. soil, under virtually any circumstances to any parents, would be a citizen of the United States. Beyond establishing a specific limit upon the ability of Congress to pass statutes interpreting or limiting the Fourteenth Amendment, moreover, the decision had a broader implication. It strengthened the principle that Congress lacked the power to pass statutes that modified the meaning of a segment of the Constitution. Congress was bound by the language of the Constitution itself, and changes to the meaning of that language could be achieved only by amending the document.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chan, Sucheng. Entry Denied: Exclusion and the Chinese Community in America, 1882-1943. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991. Good discussion of the effects and technical aspects of the Chinese Exclusion Acts.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Corwin, Edward S. The Constitution of the United States of America: Analysis and Interpretation. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1953. Corwin’s monumental compilation of constitutional lore is especially strong on issues such as citizenship, whose fundamental rules date back to the nineteenth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Franklin, Frank George. The Legislative History of Naturalization in the United States: From the Revolutionary War to 1861. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1906. Discussion of naturalization and citizenship precedents of early U.S. history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lee, Erika. “Wong Kim Ark: Chinese American Citizens and U.S. Exclusion Laws, 1882-1943.” In The Human Tradition in California, edited by Clark Davis and David Igler. Wilmington, Del.: Scholarly Resources, 2002. Examines the history of Chinese Americans in California and the effect of the exclusion laws upon them.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McKenzie, Roderick Duncan. Oriental Exclusion: The Effect of American Immigration Laws, Regulations, and Judicial Decisions upon the Chinese and Japanese on the American Pacific Coast, 1885-1940. New York: J. S. Ozer, 1971. Discusses the human aspect of the Chinese exclusion laws.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">White, Sherwin. The Roman Citizenship. London: Oxford University Press, 1973. Complete discussion of the origin of Roman citizenship, the means of acquiring it, and its duties, responsibilities, and privileges.

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