This Supreme Court case established the precedent that any person born in the United States is a citizen by birth (known as birth-right citizenship). Wong Kim Ark was born in the United States and traveled regularly to China to visit family. On returning from one trip, immigration officers barred his entry as an excludable Chinese person. Wong asserted his right to enter as a U.S. citizen but was challenged by the Immigration Bureau, which assumed that no Chinese person could hold U.S. citizenship. The Supreme Court ruled that the Fourteenth Amendment granted birthright citizenship to any person born in the United States, regardless of race or the status of their parents. This decision and birthright citizenship has served as a key means for immigrants of all backgrounds to establish permanent legal standing in the United States.
U.S. Supreme Court, United States v. Wong Kim Ark, 169 U.S. 649 (1898)
United States v. Wong Kim Ark
Argued March 5, 8, 1897
Decided March 28, 1898
169 U.S. 649
[U.S. District Attorney]:
Because the said Wong Kim Ark, although born in the city and county of San Francisco, State of California, United States of America, is not, under the laws of the State of California and of the United States, a citizen thereof,the mother and father of the said Wong Kim Ark being Chinese persons and subjects of the Emperor of China, and the said Wong Kim Ark being also a Chinese person and a subject of the Emperor of China.
Because the said Wong Kim Ark has been at all times, by reason of his race, language, color and dress, a Chinese person, and now is, and for some time last past has been, a laborer by occupation.”
“That the said Wong Kim Ark is not entitled to land in the United States, or to be or remain therein, because he does not belong to any of the privileged classes enumerated in any of the acts of Congress, known as the Chinese Exclusion Acts, * which would exempt him from the class or classes which are especially excluded from the United States by the provisions of the said acts . . . .
[SCOTUS Majority Decision]:
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 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 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 . . . .
Its main purpose doubtless was, as has been often recognized by this court, to establish the citizenship of free negroes, which had been denied in the opinion delivered by Chief Justice Taney in Dred Scott v. Sandford . . . .
But citizenship by birth is established by the mere fact of birth under the circumstances defined in the Constitution. Every person born in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, becomes at once a citizen of the United States, and needs no naturalization.