US v. Wong Kim Ark: Supreme Court Case, Arguments, Impact

The 14th Amendment’s Protection of Birthright Citizenship

Sworn Statement of Witnesses verifying Departure Statement of Wong Kim Ark
Sworn statement of witnesses verifying departure statement of Wong Kim Ark, November 2, 1894.

 Public Domain / Department of Justice. Immigration and Naturalization Service

United States v. Wong Kim Ark, decided by the U.S. Supreme Court on March 28, 1898, confirmed that under the Citizenship Clause of Fourteenth Amendment, the United States government cannot deny full U.S. citizenship to any person born within the United States. The landmark decision established the doctrine of “birthright citizenship,” a key issue in the debate over illegal immigration in the United States. 

Fast Facts: United States v. Wong Kim Ark

  • Case Argued: March 5, 1897
  • Decision Issued: March 28, 1898
  • Petitioner: United States Government
  • Respondent: Wong Kim Ark
  • Key Question: Can the U.S. government deny U.S. citizenship to a person born in the United States to immigrant or otherwise non-citizen parents?
  • Majority Decision: Associate Justice Gray, joined by Justices Brewer, Brown, Shiras, White, and Peckham.
  • Dissenting: Chief Justice Fuller, joined by Justice Harlan (Justice Joseph McKenna did not participate)
  • Ruling: The Citizenship Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment grants U.S. citizenship to all children born to foreign parents while on American soil, with a limited set of exceptions.

Facts of the Case

Wong Kim Ark was born in 1873 in San Francisco, California, to Chinese immigrant parents who remained subjects of China while residing in the United States. Under the U.S. Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment ratified in 1868, he became a citizen of the United States at the time of his birth.

In 1882, the U.S. Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which denied U.S. citizenship to existing Chinese immigrants and banned the further immigration of Chinese laborers into the United States. In 1890, Wong Kim Ark traveled abroad to visit his parents who had permanently moved back to China earlier the same year. When he returned to San Francisco, U.S. customs officials allowed his re-entry as a “native-born citizen.” In 1894, the now 21-year-old Wong Kim Ark went back to China to visit his parents. However, when he returned in 1895, U.S. customs officials denied him entry on the grounds that as a Chinese laborer, he was not a U.S. citizen. 

Wong Kim Ark appealed his denial of entry to the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, which ruled on January 3, 1896, that by virtue of having been born in the United States, he was legally a U.S. citizen. The court based its decision on the Fourteenth Amendment and its inherent legal principle of “jus soli”—citizenship based on place of birth. The U.S. government appealed the district court ruling to the United States Supreme Court. 

Constitutional Issues

The first clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution—the so-called “Citizenship Clause”—bestows full citizenship, along with all rights, privileges, and immunities of citizenship, on all persons born in the United States, regardless of the citizenship status of their parents. The clause states: “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.” 

In the case of United States v. Wong Kim Ark the Supreme Court was asked to determine whether or not the federal government, contrary to the Fourteenth Amendment, had the right to deny U.S. citizenship to a person born in the United States to immigrant or otherwise non-citizen parents.

In the words of the Supreme Court, it considered the “single question” of “whether a child born in the United States, of parent[s] of Chinese descent, who, at the time of his birth, are subjects of the Emperor of China, but have a permanent domicile 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.”

The Arguments 

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments on March 5, 1897. Lawyers for Wong Kim Ark repeated their argument that had been upheld in the district court—that under the Citizenship Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and the principle of jus soli—Wong Kim Ark was an American citizen by virtue of having been born in the United States. 

Presenting the federal government’s case, Solicitor General Holmes Conrad argued that since Wong Kim Ark’s parents were subjects of China at the time of his birth, he was also a subject of China and not, according to the Fourteenth Amendment, “subject to the jurisdiction” of the United States and thus, not a U.S. citizen. The government further argued that because Chinese citizenship law was based on the principle of “jus sanguinis”—that children inherit the citizenship of their parents—it trumped U.S. citizenship law, including the Fourteenth Amendment. 

Majority Opinion

On March 28, 1898, the Supreme Court ruled 6-2 that Wong Kim Ark had been a U.S. citizen since birth and that “the American citizenship which Wong Kim Ark acquired by birth within the United States has not been lost or taken away by anything happening since his birth.” 

In writing the court's majority opinion, Associate Justice Horace Gray held that the Citizenship Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment must be interpreted according to the concept of jus soli as established in English common law, which allowed only three exceptions to birthright citizenship: 

  • children of foreign diplomats,
  • children born while on board foreign public ships at sea, or;
  • children born to citizens of an enemy nation that is actively engaged in hostile occupation of the country’s territory. 

Finding that none of the three exceptions to birthright citizenship applied to Wong Kim Ark, the majority concluded that “during all the time of their said residence in the United States, as domiciled residents therein, the said mother and father of said Wong Kim Ark were engaged in the prosecution of business, and were never engaged in any diplomatic or official capacity under the emperor of China.” 

Joining Associate Justice Gray in the majority opinion were Associate Justices David J. Brewer, Henry B. Brown, George Shiras Jr., Edward Douglass White, and Rufus W. Peckham. 

Dissenting Opinion

Chief Justice Melville Fuller, joined by Associate Justice John Harlan, dissented. Fuller and Harlan first argued that U.S. citizenship law had broken away from English common law after the American Revolution. Similarly, they argued that since independence, the citizenship principle of jus sanguinis had been more prevalent in U.S. legal history than the birthright principle of jus soli. When considered in the context of U.S. versus Chinese naturalization law, the dissent argued that “the children of Chinese born in this country do not, ipso facto, become citizens of the United States unless the Fourteenth Amendment overrides both treaty and statute.”

Citing the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which defined U.S. citizens to be “all persons born in the United States and not subject to any foreign power, excluding Indians not taxed,” and had been enacted just two months before the Fourteenth Amendment was proposed, the dissenters argued that the words “'subject to the jurisdiction thereof” in the Fourteenth Amendment carried the same meaning as the words “'and not subject to any foreign power” in the Civil Rights Act.

Finally, the dissenters pointed to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which prohibited Chinese immigrants already in the United States from becoming U.S. citizens. 

The Impact

Ever since it was handed down, the Supreme Court’s United States v. Wong Kim Ark ruling upholding birthright citizenship as a guaranteed right by the Fourteenth Amendment has been the focus of intense debate regarding the rights of foreign minorities born in the United States who claim U.S. citizenship by virtue of their place of birth. Despite many court challenges over the years, the Wong Kim Ark ruling remains the most-often cited and upheld precedent protecting the rights of persons born to undocumented immigrants who were—for whatever purposes—present in the United States at the time of their children’s births.

Sources and Further References