The 14th Amendment to the US Constitution was ratified in 1868. It begins with “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.” There’s a lot more to it, but the idea was to settle the question of citizenship for formerly enslaved people after the Civil War. Political leaders argued over whether it covered Native Americans as well, but it soon became clear that the federal government really did not want this law to cover Asians.
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Wong Kim Ark was born in San Francisco to Chinese immigrants in 1870. His parents returned to China a few years later, but Wong traveled back to San Francisco with an uncle and grew up to live and work there. He traveled to China occasionally, where he married and conceived children. Wong was 24 when he was denied entry into the US because he wasn’t a citizen. Although he was born in California, his parents weren’t US citizens, nor could they become citizens because of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. Wong lived on ships offshore for months while he fought this decision, and federal authorities came to see him as an important test case for birthright citizenship for people of Chinese ancestry. They wanted to deny his citizenship as a precedent for all Chinese-Americans born in the US, and therefore any of their children, whether born in the US or abroad. The case of United States v. Wong Kim Ark in 1898 had far-reaching implications for Asian immigrants and their descendants in the US. Read about the case that went to the Supreme Court and its aftermath at Smithsonian.
(Image credit: National Archives)