How The Child of Chinese Immigrants Led the Charge for Birthright Citizenship in the U.S.

By Sameer Rao Mar 29, 2018

Yesterday (March 28) marked 120 years since the Supreme Court determined that U.S.-born children of immigrants are United States citizens. The Center for Asian American Media (CAAM) revisits this decision in a video posted on Facebook yesterday. 

The clip explains that Wong Kim Ark, the child of Chinese immigrant parents in San Francisco, visited China and successfully returned to America several times. But in 1894, customs officials denied him re-entry under the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which barred most Chinese immigrants from admission and citizenship.

Wong fought the decision, and the prevailing xenophobia toward Asian Americans, through several legal battles. His fight ended in 1898 with the Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. Wong Kim Ark. Justice Horace Gray wrote in the court’s opinion that the citizenship clause of the 14th Amendment granted citizenship to anybody born on U.S. soil: 

The question presented by the record is whether a child born in the United States, of parents of Chinese descent, who, at the time of his birth, are subjects of the Emperor of China, but have a permanent domicil and residence in the United States, and are there carrying on business, and are not employed in any diplomatic or official capacity under the Emperor of China, becomes at the time of his birth a citizen of the United States by virtue of the first clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution[.]

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.

The above clip is from "The Chinese Exclusion Act," an upcoming documentary about the legislation and the forces that led to its passage. "By examining the socio-economic and geo-political forces that led to the act, the film will uncover its unmistakable and wide-ranging consequences on national attitudes towards race, culture, politics and society," reads a statement from CAAM, which co-produced the documentary.

"The Chinese Exclusion Act" premieres May 29 on PBS as part of its American Experience film series.