169 U.S. 649 (1898), argued 5–8 Mar. 1897, decided 28 Mar. 1898 by vote of 6 to 2; Gray for the Court, Fuller and Harlan in dissent, McKenna not participating. This case arose out of the debate over the exclusion of Chinese from the United States in the late nineteenth century. At issue was the citizenship status of persons of Chinese descent born in the United States. Chinese had already been denied the privilege of becoming naturalized citizens under an 1882 act. Exclusionists urged that persons of Chinese descent should be denied birthright citizenship as well and pushed for a definition of citizenship based upon the nationality of the parents (“jus sanguinis”) rather than upon place of birth (“jus soli”).
The issue came before the Supreme Court when Wong Kim Ark, born to Chinese parents in San Francisco in 1873, was denied admission to the United States after traveling to China for a visit. The decision hinged upon the interpretation of the first clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which provided that “all persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States.” The government argued that Wong Kim Ark was not a citizen because his Chinese parentage made him subject to the emperor of China. The Supreme Court, however, ruled in favor of Wong Kim Ark, holding that the common law and the Fourteenth Amendment guaranteed citizenship to all persons born in the United States, regardless of their ethnic heritage. The case proved to be an important legal victory for Chinese-Americans as well as other persons of Asian descent during a period of intense anti-Asian sentiment.
Lucy E. Salyer