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Wong Kim Ark, Constitutional Citizenship & Asian Americans

(Originally published on the Asian Pacific Americans for Progress blog in April 2011)

On March 28, 2011, the New York Times picked up a story that ran a few days earlier in the Pasadena Star-News, a local Southern California newspaper, about the discovery of a home in the Los Angeles area catering to Chinese “maternity tourists.”  In doing so, it touched off the latest round of debate on the 100+ year legal principle that confers U.S. citizenship on anyone born in the United States.  Two days later, a subsequent investigation by the same Star-News reporter concluded that incidents of “maternity tourism” are isolated and the numbers of births are very low.  But by then, the media had picked up the story and it took on a life of its own.

Lost in the frenzy of reporters and bloggers trying to weigh in on this issue was a more important reason for March 28 being a notable date in the history of “birthright” citizenship:  More than 100 years ago, on March 28, 1898, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its landmark decision in United States v. Wong Kim Ark, holding that children born in the United States, even to parents not eligible to become citizens, were nonetheless citizens themselves under the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

The 14th Amendment states that “[a]ll persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States.” Adopted after the Civil War, it was intended to prevent states from deciding on their own, particularly with regard to the children of freed slaves.  In Wong Kim Ark, the Supreme Court confirmed that this right extended to the children of non-citizens as well.

Born in San Francisco to Chinese immigrants who were barred under the Chinese Exclusion Act from ever becoming U.S. citizens, Wong was denied re-entry to the United States after a trip to China, on the grounds that the son of a Chinese national could never be a U.S. citizen.  Wong sued the federal government, resulting in the Supreme Court’s seminal decision that for 113 years has shaped the uniquely diverse character of our nation, by giving root to countless immigrant communities from all races and ethnicities. 

For Chinese Americans and in fact all Asian Americans, Wong Kim Ark’s courage has subsequently and significantly led to the growth and integration of a community that a century ago lived in dwindling isolation and segregation under the Chinese Exclusion Act.  By confirming the U.S. citizenship of children born in the United State to immigrant parents, the Wong Kim Ark decision allowed Asian migrants to slowly gain a toehold in American society, creating generations of Asian Americans who know no other home than the United States and who have fully integrated into American society and culture, as scientists, doctors, entrepreneurs, lawyers, teachers, artists.  In fact, through immigration and births, Asian Americans have emerged as the fastest-growing community over the past decade, jumping 34 percent in California and at least 43 percent nationally.

In context of the rapid growth and integration of the Asian American community, it’s clear that the “maternity tourism” case in Southern California represents an aberration in the Chinese immigrant experience.  The New York Times reported that in 2008 (the most recently available data), out of approximately 4.3 million total births, only 7,462 were to foreign residents overall – a tiny 0.17% of the births in that year – and births to “maternity tourists” would comprise an even smaller subset of that tiny number.  Those who clamor to abolish the long-standing right of constitutional citizenship would eliminate a fundamental principle cherished by all Americans, in order to punish a few individuals.  Such a sweeping reform would be an outsized response to a non-issue.

So, while the sensationalized story of “maternity tourism” grabs headlines, the more important story of the 14th Amendment is in how it laid the foundation for our extraordinarily diverse nation, by granting citizenship to the children of freed slaves and immigrants from around the globe.  While challenges to birthright citizenship will likely continue, all Americans should celebrate Wong Kim Ark’s courage and defend his legacy of guaranteeing the constitutional right to citizenship.

--Karin Wang, APALC vice president of programs & communications


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