United States v. Wong Kim Ark


United States v. Wong Kim Ark (1898) is the Supreme Court ruling that determined the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution granted birthright citizenship to all persons born in the United States regardless of race or nationality. This case was central in defending Nisei against efforts to take away their citizenship during World War II, particularly in the case of Regan v. King, a lawsuit initiated by the American Legion and the Native Sons of the Golden West that sought to remove Nisei from the list of registered voters in San Francisco with the larger goal of challenging Nisei rights to U.S. citizenship.

Wong Kim Ark was born in San Francisco, California, in 1873. His father, Wong Si Ping and his mother Wee Lee, were immigrants from China. His father was a merchant and a member of the firm, Quong Sing & Co., based in the city of San Francisco. They were not eligible to become citizens of the United States. When they immigrated, only "free white persons" could become naturalized citizens of the United States. That had been the law since the Naturalization Act of 1790, and persisted even when the Naturalization Act of 1870 extended citizenship to "aliens of African nativity and persons of African descent." Wong Kim Ark's parents were not eligible for U.S. citizenship even if they made the United States their permanent home, but Wong Kim Ark was born in the United States and was granted citizenship under the citizenship clause of the 14th Amendment.

Wong's parents moved to China, but Wong stayed in California, traveling to China to visit his parents on two separate occasions. His first trip to visit his parents seemed uneventful. He was granted entry upon his return to the U.S. in 1890. Four years later, however, he was denied reentry when the collector of customs claimed that Wong was not a citizen.

Wong Kim Ark gained legal support from the Chinese Six Companies and fought his case all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States. At issue was whether or not his birth in San Francisco was enough to make him a citizen of the United States. Lawyers arguing against Wong claimed that since he was born to parents who were subjects of China, Wong was also a subject of China and was therefore not, in the words of the 14th Amendment, "subject to the jurisdiction" of the United States and was therefore not a U.S. citizen. China, like Japan, grants citizenship based on bloodline. Children born to Chinese nationals regardless of location can claim citizenship in China if the birth is properly registered in China. The United States also grants this provision with certain limitations, but the U.S. is primarily a country of citizenship by soil, or Jus soli. Lawyers defending the federal government claimed that Chinese citizenship trumped U.S. citizenship law in this case. The Supreme Court did not agree.

The Supreme Court held in a 6-2 decision that a child born in the United States to parents of foreign decent is a citizen of the United States unless the parents are: 1) foreign diplomats, or 2) the child was born to parents who are nationals of an enemy nation that is engaged in a hostile occupation of the country’s territory. This follows classic English common law tradition and set down the most powerful precedent in favor of equality of citizenship in U.S. history.

United States v. Wong Kim Ark is a case that has been contested ever since. Japanese law and that of many other countries, such as Germany, Italy, Japan, China, all granted citizenship to children along bloodlines. This difference in citizenship law laid the foundation for the possibility of dual citizenship for many second generation children of immigrants, not just the Nisei. This possibility led to War Department efforts in 1941 to force children with two possible citizenships to choose their U.S. citizenship and renounce any allegiance to a foreign government, or be deported or detained in "concentration camp" (see HR 5879). This bill was never adopted, but it demonstrated War Department efforts to clarify Nisei citizenship by legislating the requirement that they chose between their U.S. birthright citizenship and the legal possibility that they could claim Japanese citizenship. United States v. Wong Kim Ark had already clarified that the U.S. could not deny Nisei their citizenship outright, even though Nisei citizenship was challenged during the war years and Nisei did not enjoy the protections that should have been guaranteed by law.

The Supreme Court case regarding Wong Kim Ark's birthright citizenship as granted by the 14th Amendment has been at the center of many arguments regarding the rights of minorities born in the United States and efforts by various groups to narrow who can claim U.S. citizenship by birth. This is the strongest legal precedent protecting the rights of citizens born in the United States even if they happen to be a part of a group otherwise targeted for exclusion. In addition to Nisei during World War II, this list has included children born to undocumented immigrants from Latin America, and children born to parents who were only visiting the U.S. from the Middle East at the time of their children's births.

Authored by Cherstin M. Lyon, California State University, San Bernardino

For More Information

Ho, James, et. al. "Made in America: Myths and Facts About Birthright Citizenship." Perspectives. Immigration Policy Center, 2009.

Irons, Peter. Justice at War: The Story of the Japanese American Internment Cases. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983.

McClain, Charles J. "Tortuous Path, Elusive Goal: The Asian Quest for American Citizenship." Asian Law Journal 2.33 (1995).

McClain, Charles J. In Search of Equality: The Chinese Struggle Against Discrimination in Nineteenth-Century America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.

Motomura, Hiroshi. Americans in Waiting: The Lost Story of Immigration in the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Plascencia, Luis F. B. Disenchanting Citizenship: Mexican Migrants and the Boundaries of Belonging. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2012.

United States v. Wong Kim Ark. 169 U.S. 649 (1898).