All Persons Born or Naturalized ...
The Legacy of US v Wong Kim Ark

UC Hastings College of the Law Library Summer 2001


Introduction | Anti-Chinese Laws | Wong Kim Ark's Case | Legal Issues Today | Works Consulted

Wong Kim Ark's Case
(169 US 649 (1898), argued 5-8 Mar. 1897, decided 28 Mar. 1898 by a vote of 6-2).

The longest amendment to the US Constitution, the fourteenth amendment was passed by Congress one year after the conclusion of the Civil War as a way of protecting the rights of newly freed African-American Slaves. Section 1 of the amendment protects all United States residents against state laws by prohibiting state governments from denying persons within their jurisdiction the "privileges and immunities" of US citizenship. States may not restrict the rights of people within their boundaries.

The amendment defined citizenship as a way to protect citizens from the states. The amendment originally focused on the civil status of newly freed slaves, overruling Dred Scott v Sandford, which concluded that African-Americans were not federal citizens.

Wong Kim Ark in 1894

National Archives: Immigration and Naturalization Service,
San Francisco District Office

Arguments in the case
US v Wong Kim Ark hinged on one phrase of the 14th amendment, "subject to the jurisdiction." What if a child's parents were citizens of another country? Could they still be "subject to the jurisdiction" of the United States? More importantly, did the child's allegiance follow that of his parents?

Signature of Wong Kim Ark, testifying that he is a citizen of the United States. Click here for full text

National Archives: Immigration and Naturalization Service,
San Francisco District Office

The Supreme Court in 1894

Reproduced in Yarbrough, Tinsley E. Judicial Enigma: The First Justice Harlan.
New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Arguments in support of the appellee, Wong Kim Ark

"He has always subjected himself to the
jurisdiction and dominion of the United States,
...and has been taxed, recognized, and treated
as a citizen of the United States."
Thomas Riordan, Respondent's Brief.

"Prejudice of race and pretension of caste were
set aside by the Fourteenth Amendment, which ordained in unequivocal and far-reaching terms that 'all persons born in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof are citizens of the United States.' The language cannot by construction or interpretation be persons of the Caucasian race and persons of African descent, to the exclusion of persons of Mongolian descent."

J. Hubley Ashton, Brief for the Appelle.

Arguments in support of the appellant, the United States

"Large numbers of Chinese laborers of a distinct race and religion, remaining strangers in the land, residing apart by themselves...and apparently incapable of assimilating with our people, might endanger good order and be injurious to the public interests."
Holmes Conrad, Reply Brief for the United States. Quoting Justice Gray, 149 US 747, p 717.

"As the respondent was born of alien parents, to wit, subjects of the Emperor of China, he was at his birth a subject of China, claimed by that nation as such, and therefore was not born "subject to the jursidiction" of the United States."
George Collins and Holmes Conrad, Brief on Behalf of the Appellant.


San Francisco Call, Feb. 8, 1896

"The question at issue is not one that affects American-born Chinese only, but every American-born son of a foreign-born father who did not become a naturalized citizen of this country prior to the time arrived at maturity. In this view of the case one sees at a glance that many thousands of voters all over the United States are deeply interested in the knotty legal problem, though of course should the United States Supreme Court reverse the ruling of Judge Morrow, as it is confidently expected that it will, the American-born Chinese will be the only ones ultimately deprived of citizenship. Sons of non-naturalized Caucasians will merely have to secure naturalization in the ordinary way. But the Mongolians, while the existing Chinese restriction laws are in force, will be forever barred from citizenship."
San Francisco Call, Feb. 8, 1896


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Research and text by Chuck Marcus, Reference Librarian. Research and web design by Beret Aune and Katie Wadell, Library Assistants.