United States v. Wong Kim Ark (1898)

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Facts: Wong Kim Ark was born in 1873 in the city of San Francisco in California. His parents were both Chinese immigrants and remained subjects of the Chinese emperor while they lived in the United States. Ever since he was born, Wong Kim Ark lived in California. Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, which denied citizenship to any Chinese immigrants and did not allow any new immigrant laborers to come from China until 1892. In 1890, Wong Kim Ark’s parents returned to China. He visited them that same year, but came back to San Francisco, recognized as a “native-born citizen” by the U.S. customs officials. In 1894, when he was 21 years old, he went back to China to visit his parents again. In 1895, he attempted to re-enter the United States, but U.S. customs officials denied his entry, claiming this time that he was not a U.S. citizen.


Issues: Does a child born in the United States to parents of Chinese descent become a U.S. citizen by birth, according to the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution?


Holding: Yes. The Chinese Exclusion Act was passed 14 years after the Fourteenth Amendment, so it cannot possibly control the meaning of the amendment. Justice Horace Gray wrote the opinion of the Supreme Court, which stated that the Act “must be construed and executed in subordination” to the Fourteenth Amendment. The court held that the government cannot deny citizenship to anyone born within the United States, including Wong Kim Ark. Furthermore, if he was a citizen, then the Chinese Exclusion Act could not apply to him. Wong Kim Ark’s parents, in particular, were not engaged in any diplomatic or official capacity in the United States at any time.