Wong Kim Ark-HERO

442: The Man Responsible for the Birth of Birthright Citizenship

Why millions of Americans have Wong Kim Ark to thank for their citizenship

Words by Samantha Pak

The 442: A JoySauce column named after the military unit, designed to school you (in all the best ways) on accomplished Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders of the past. Asians have been shaping American history, culture, food, politics, identity, and more for centuries—it’s time we acknowledge what’s been left out of most textbooks.

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Anyone born in the United States — with the exception of children of foreign diplomats — is automatically an American citizen.

This is thanks to Wong Kim Ark (1873-?), the son of Chinese immigrants. While his parents couldn’t become citizens due to the United States’ Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, Ark was born in San Francisco. According to the plain language of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, this made him a U.S. citizen. But the law wasn’t always interpreted as such until Ark returned from a trip to China in 1895.

Upon his return, Ark was initially denied re-entry into the country due to the aforementioned exclusion act and was detained at the Port of San Francisco. The argument was that Ark couldn’t be an American citizen (despite his birthplace) because his parents were Chinese subjects. Ark took his argument all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court and in 1898, in the case of United States v. Wong Kim Ark, the court ruled 6-2 in Ark’s favor.

Justice Horace Gray, who authored the court opinion for the case, wrote, “the American citizenship which Wong Kim Ark acquired by birth within the United States has not been lost or taken away by anything happening since his birth.”

The landmark ruling established the precedent that the 14th Amendment granted birthright citizenship to anyone born in the United States — regardless of race or the status of their parents. Millions of Americans owe their citizenship to Ark.

In addition, the ruling has been used as an argument in a number of cases and situations, including defending Nisei (second-generation Japanese Americans) against efforts to strip them of their citizenship during World War II, according to Densho Encyclopedia.

Ark’s case has been used to protect countless people over the years, but there are also those who want to undo it all — including Donald Trump, who spent his presidency calling for an end to birthright citizenship. But since this would call for amending the Constitution, which would affect millions in this country, birthright citizenship doesn’t appear to be going anywhere any time soon.

Despite winning his case, Ark still needed to provide sworn documents proving his citizenship whenever he left the country. In the end, it’s believed that Ark returned to China, where he died shortly after World War II.

Published on December 5, 2022

Words by Samantha Pak

Samantha Pak (she/her) is an award-winning Cambodian American journalist from the Seattle area and assistant editor for JoySauce. She spends more time than she’ll admit shopping for books than actually reading them, and has made it her mission to show others how amazing Southeast Asian people are. Follow her on Twitter at @iam_sammi and on Instagram at @sammi.pak.