Wong Kim Ark was born in San Francisco in 1873. His parents were “of Chinese descent, and subjects of the Emperor of China,” and permanent residents of the United States.Wong’s parents were not eligible for citizenship due to the United States Naturalization Act of 1870, which only permitted free whites and African Americans to gain citizenship. In 1894, when Wong was returning from a trip to China, the authorities at the port of San Francisco refused him entry under the Chinese Exclusion Act, claiming he was not a US citizen. United States v. Wong made it all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of Wong’s citizenship and stated that due to the 14th Amendment, “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,” no matter the nationality of their parents.
The Court ultimately agreed with Wong’s claim, establishing citizenship through birthright. The dissenting justices’ opinions, however, speak to the racism ingrained in American culture at the time. Chief Justice Fuller’s dissenting opinion states, “I am of opinion that the President … and the Congress...have the power… to prescribe that all persons of a particular race, or their children, cannot become citizens, and that it results that the consent to allow such persons to come into and reside within our geographical limits does not carry with it the imposition of citizenship upon children born to them while in this country.” He states that the segregation of Chinese laborers and their inability to fully assimilate into American culture threatens traditional American society; for these reasons, no matter the birthplace of an ethnically Chinese person, they should not be granted US citizenship. Despite the dissenting opinions, this case ultimately decided that American citizenship would be determined by birthright, not family lineage.
Nearly 125 years after this Supreme Court Decision, our current president has recently proposed the ending of birthright citizenship via executive order. President Trump stated to Axios: "We're the only country in the world where a person comes in and has a baby, and the baby is essentially a citizen of the United States ... with all of those benefits". When one analyzes Trump’s claim that no other countriest have birthright citizenship, they see that this is clearly a false statement. Over 30 countries grant birthright citizenship or “jus soli”-- which literally translates into “law of the soil.” Besides jus soli, America has jus sanguinis. Jus sanguinis translates from Latin to right by blood, and states that a child’s citizenship is based upon the parents’ citizenship. Because of United States v. Wong and the 14th Amendment, legal experts are practically certain that abolishing birthright citizenship would be impossible through executive action; because it is established in the 14th Amendment, abolishing it would require a new constitutional amendment. However, let us entertain this hypothetical and ask how would the United States establish citizenship if not through birthright.
Some countries also give citizenship preference to people with ethnic ties to their nation; this is called leges sanguinis. What would it look like if the United States established leges sanguinis? The first question that comes up is how does one define “ethnic ties” to America. If we look at the US Census, we see that an estimated 77% of Americans are white. Should we determine ethnic ties by looking at the majority racial demographic in a country? If we look at the US Census we also see that the 1.3% of the American population is American Indian or Alaskan Native. Do we judge ethnic ties by those who were here before European colonizers? If so, what does one do with the rest of the American population, a group that by this standard should have never been granted citizenship in the first place?
Another concept of citizenship was recently discussed in my anthropology class: “de facto citizenship”. In was brought up in connection with Deborah Boehm’s book Returned, in which she discusses the negative effects of deportation on many Mexican and Mexican-American families. Boehm proposes that many young people raised, but not born, in America are de facto citizens and are deserving of all the rights and protections of any other American citizen. This concept struck a chord in the classroom as students proposed that citizenship was fundamentally “just a check on a piece of paper,” while others stated that is was something more than that, something involving a more personal connection to national identity. The concept of de facto citizenship begets a greater question: what does it mean to be culturally American? As American corporations have continuously exported “American” culture to the global market and imported new ideas and customs via immigrants, American culture has demonstrated its fluidity and inconsistency.
A quick look at the culinary world exemplifies the give and take of American culture, with McDonalds being immensely popular overseas and chains such as Taco Bell or Panda Express creating new brands of Americanized ethnic food. Similarly, the determining factors of citizenship are pliable, simply determined by the laws of any particular country. Despite one’s acknowledgement of the fluid nature of citizenship, its significance is impossible to deny. As we look at America today, we see that within our border lie many citizens and, if one buys into the concept, de facto citizens. The former group has the privileges and immunities enumerated by the US government, while many in the latter category live in fear of discovery. Either way, each group acknowledges that with American citizenship, there is a level of protection granted by the state.
The purpose of United States v. Wong was to protect children of immigrants, born within our borders, and establish their legitimacy and citizens of the United States of America. Today, the conversation has shifted to asking: to what extent do we protect children born outside our borders, but raised within them? Although polar opposites on the political spectrum President Trump and Boehm actually share a common message; citizenship is about something more than just birthright.
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