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The Father of U.S. Birthright Citizenship - APAHM Feature

The Father of U.S. Birthright Citizenship - APAHM Feature


Birthright citizenship grants U.S. citizenship for all children born within its borders. It is the legal status determined solely by the soil of one’s birth. Countless mothers and fathers have travelled thousands of miles to reach our shores and cross the invisible threshold. They come not only to find a better life for themselves but also to secure the opportunities of American citizenship for their children.

To celebrate Asian Pacific American Heritage month, we would like to recognize Wong Kim Ark, the father of birthright citizenship. The privileges of birthright citizenship were not always a given. In 1895, the U.S. government refused to recognize Wong Kim Ark’s citizenship. They called him an “accidental citizen”. They refused to acknowledge the rights afforded by the 14th Amendment and instead argued that a child’s citizenship should be bound only to the blood of the parents. Wong Kim Ark challenged their refusal through the judicial system. Through his legal fight for citizenship, Wong Kim Ark set one of the most important immigrant civil rights Supreme Court precedence in United States history.

14th Amendment guaranteeing US citizenship at birth

Wong Kim Ark was born to father Wong Si Ping and mother Wee Lee in 1873 in San Francisco. He was born into an America rife with anti-Chinese sentiment. The anti-immigration sentiment culminated The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The Chinese Exclusion act was a blanket policy banning all immigration from China and preventing the Chinese people from receiving equal treatment under the law; it is the only policy in United States history that banned immigration by a specific nationality. Fearing for his family’s safety, Ping and Lee decide to return to China, bringing Wong Kim Ark back to their homeland. Wong Kim Ark would live his life between two worlds, living in the United States for work while regularly visiting China where he built a family.San Francisco Harbor 1850 or 1851

In 1895, after returning from a visit to China, Wong Kim Ark was detained in the port of San Francisco despite having the required paperwork. He had a sworn affidavit from a white man testifying to his citizenship but the authorities still refused his entry.  This refusal became the catalyst for United States v. Wong Kim Ark, the Supreme Court case that established birthright citizenship for all.

From 1895 to 1898, Wong Kim Ark fought to have his citizenship recognized. The government opposed his citizenship and yet with each legal challenge the judge would rule and recognize Wong Kim Ark’s citizenship. After a Ninth Circuit decision in favor of Ark, the United States government appealed the decision directly to the Supreme Court. They had hoped to ride the prevailing anti-Chinese sentiment and settle the issue once and for all. But the case law and precedent was clear, and on March 28th 1989 the Supreme Court declared 6-2 that Wong Kim Ark was a United States citizen.

news article announcing Supreme Court decision

Wong Kim Ark was not a civil rights activist. He did not lead revolutions or give impassioned speeches. Instead Wong Kim Ark was a cook from San Francisco who fought for a piece of his identity that others wanted to take away. He fought for his right to be an American citizen, the opportunity not only to make a better life for himself but for his children and family for generations to come.

The impact of his fight has reverberated through American society touching the lives of every new child born in America. Children of immigrants do not have to choose between the culture of blood and the culture of soil. Instead, because of Wong Kim Ark, they can thrive as a citizen of both.