United States v. Wong Kim Ark Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Based on the Fourteenth Amendment, the Wong Kim Ark decision held that any person born on American soil is a citizen of the United States. Before this decision, jurists had disagreed about the citizenship status of babies born in the country to alien parents.

Wong Wong Kim ArkKim Ark was born in San Francisco to Chinese parents. When he attempted to return to the United States after a visit to China, U.S. Customs officials refused him entry on the basis of the federal Chinese exclusion laws, which severely limited Chinese immigration and prohibited persons of Chinese ancestry from becoming naturalized citizens. The position of the executive branch at the time defined citizenship based on the nationality of parents (jus sanguinis) rather than the place of birth (jus soli). Referring to the Chinese exclusion laws, government lawyers argued that persons of Chinese parentage were not eligible for citizenship because they were under the jurisdiction of the emperor of China.[c]United States v. Wong Kim Ark[c]Wong Kim Ark, United States v.[a]Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882;and U.S. Supreme Court[US Supreme Court][a]Fourteenth Amendment;citizenship clauseCitizenship[c]United States v. Wong KimArk[c]Wong Kim Ark, United States v.[a]Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882;and U.S. Supreme Court[US Supreme Court][a]Fourteenth Amendment;citizenship clauseCitizenship[cat]COURT CASES;United States v. Wong Kim Ark[cat]EAST ASIAN IMMIGRANTS;United States v. Wong Kim Ark[cat]CITIZENSHIP AND NATURALIZATION;United States v. Wong Kim Ark

However, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized, by a 6-2 margin, that Wong Kim Ark was a U.S. citizen because of his place of birth. Writing for the majority, Justice Gray, HoraceHorace Gray based the decision primarily on a literal reading of the citizenship clause of the Fourteenth Amendment: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States.” Even though the primary intent of the Fourteenth Amendment had been to guarantee citizenship for the former slaves and their descendants, Gray insisted that the comprehensive phrase “all persons” made it unconstitutional to exclude anyone because of race or national origin.

In regard to the phrase “subject to the jurisdiction thereof,” a person living in the country “owes obedience to the laws of that government, and may be punished for treason or other crimes.” The English common law, moreover, had long recognized only two exceptions to granting citizenship based on Jus solijus soli: children of foreign diplomats and children of enemy forces occupying a part of the country’s territory. Finally, Gray emphasized that the Fourteenth Amendment was “the supreme law of the land,” so that congressional legislation “cannot control its meaning, or impair its effect, but must be construed and executed in subordination to its provisions.”

The application of the Wong Kim Ark ruling went far beyond persons affected by the Chinese exclusion laws. The [a]Naturalization Act of 1790Naturalization Act of 1790 stipulated that only “free white persons” were eligible to become naturalized citizens, and the law continued for some ethnic groups until 1952. In addition, many illegal immigrants have given birth to babies on American soil, and they continue to do so. The Wong Kim Ark ruling clarified the legal status of all such children.[c]United States v. Wong Kim Ark[c]Wong Kim Ark, United States v.[a]Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882;and U.S. Supreme Court[US Supreme Court][a]Fourteenth Amendment;citizenship clauseCitizenship

Further Reading
  • Aleinikoff, Thomas A., et al. Immigration and Citizenship: Process and Policy. 6th ed. St. Paul, Minn.: Thomson/West, 2008.
  • Salyer, Lucy. Laws as Harsh as Tigers: Chinese Immigrants and the Shaping of Modern Immigration Law. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995.

Arab immigrants

Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882

Citizenship

Constitution, U.S.

History of immigration after 1891

Naturalization Act of 1790

Supreme Court, U.S.

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