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  • Writer's pictureBruce Boyce

Natural-Born Citizen

Wong Kim Ark (National Archives)

"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 domicil 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."

United States v Wong Kim Ark, 169 US 649, 1898

The United States has long been a nation of immigrants, with people worldwide leaving their homelands to stake their claim in the "land of opportunity." From the earliest colonial settlers to the waves of immigrants that poured in through Ellis Island, the steady influx of new arrivals has been a driving force in shaping America's cultural fabric and economic growth. However, this immigration history is a complex tale - one filled with cycles of welcomed workers and xenophobic backlash, meritorious assimilation and cultural suppression, liberalized policies, and restrictive quotas. The story traces the disparate experiences of diverse groups like the Scots-Irish, Irish, Italians, Poles, Asians, Hispanics, and many others. They overcame adversity and prejudice to become ingrained threads in the national tapestry. Through this winding narrative, core ideals of the American dream persisted, even as the realities of racism, discrimination, and contested identities complicated that promise of equal opportunity for all immigrants seeking a new home.

The Irish immigrants who arrived on American shores during the mass migration sparked by the Great Famine of the 1840s encountered a harsh reality far removed from the land of opportunity they had envisioned. These refugees, fleeing starvation and poverty in their homeland, were met with widespread prejudice, violence, and discrimination that would make carving out a new existence an uphill battle.

Anti-Irish and anti-Catholic prejudices ran rampant, with the Irish viewed as an unwanted burden on society - backward, unclean, and inferior. Their Catholic faith also fostered distrust and resentment among the predominantly Protestant population of the young American nation. This toxic combination of ethnic and religious bigotry laid fertile ground for overt hostility and aggression towards the Irish immigrants.

In the teeming cities of the northeast like Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, the Irish found themselves targets of brutal violence. Anti-immigrant groups like the nativist Know-Nothing Party incited beatings, riots, and outright attacks on the Irish communities. One of the most deadly was the Philadelphia Nativist Riots of 1844, where Irish neighborhoods were looted and homes burned. The threat of such senseless violence loomed as the Irish clustered into urban slums and ghettos like New York's notorious Five Points or Boston's Fort Hill - crowded, unsanitary areas that perpetuated hardship and marginalization.

But the discrimination did not stop at physical attacks. It thoroughly permeated economic and political life as well. Businesses would brazenly post "No Irish Need Apply" signs, restricting employment opportunities for Irish immigrants to menial labor like construction, factory work, and domestic service. On the political front, efforts were made to strip the Irish of voting rights and block the naturalization of Irish Catholics through legislation pushed by Know-Nothing politicians.

Know Nothing Party Flag 1840s

However, the Irish experience was one of the earliest and set the pattern for how newly arrived immigrant groups were treated as threats and subhuman by parts of the native-born population. Their fight for acceptance over generations paralleled those of many other ethnic minorities that followed.

The discrimination and hardship endured by Irish immigrants in the United States during the 1840s and 1850s was not an isolated experience. Their plight shared many parallels with the obstacles faced by numerous other ethnic groups who arrived en masse, though the specific details varied. Widespread prejudices labeled these newcomers as culturally inferior, sparking violence and riots that targeted their segregated communities. Restrictive laws and concerted political efforts sought to curtail such immigration. Once here, they confronted rampant discrimination in employment that forced them into low-wage labor jobs. The impoverished ethnic enclaves they were compelled into became overcrowded ghettos. This cycle of marginalization, disenfranchisement, and deprivation was repeated for groups like Southern and Eastern Europeans from the 1880s to 1920s, Mexicans in the early 20th century, the Japanese during World War II, and Puerto Ricans from the 1940s through the 1960s. While the circumstances differed, the story of the struggle against prejudice bound these disparate immigrant populations.

The Chinese in the late 19th century faced the same level of dehumanizing treatment, hostility, and marginalization as the Irish. The hardship they endured to survive, never mind success, in their newly adopted nation was nothing short of severe. Their struggle exemplified the deep-rooted prejudices that existed in 19th-century America toward immigrants.

President Arthur's signature on Chinese Exclusion Acts

The Chinese Exclusion Act was a federal law signed by President Chester A. Arthur on May 6, 1882. It was one of the most significant restrictions on immigration in U.S. history and specifically targeted the immigration of Chinese laborers. It suspended Chinese immigration for ten years by prohibiting the immigration of Chinese laborers. Chinese merchants, students, teachers, and travelers were exempt. It required every Chinese person traveling in or out of the U.S. to carry a residency permit, essentially making it the first law requiring green cards. Chinese immigrants already residing in the U.S. were prevented from becoming naturalized citizens. The Act was renewed and extended by the Geary Act in 1892 for another ten years, requiring all Chinese residents to obtain residential permits. Despite being advertised as "temporary," the Chinese Exclusion Laws were made permanent in 1902 and not fully repealed until the Magnuson Act of 1943. They represented the first time the U.S. restricted immigration based explicitly on ethnic/national origin.

The laws impacted an estimated 20-30% of the Chinese immigrant population in the U.S. at the time, leaving families separated and instigating broad discrimination against Chinese residents. They marked a significant departure from traditional American immigration policy favoring relatively open borders. The backdrop to the Act was rising economic insecurity and racial resentment towards Chinese immigrant workers on the West Coast, especially in California. Many saw them as unfair competition, taking jobs from American workers for lower wages.

One of the central questions concerning immigration is how a natural-born citizen is defined and what rights that person is afforded under the Constitution. This question became more imperative in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War and the freeing of the black enslaved population of the American South. The 14th Amendment was meant, in part, to address this issue. However, the matter wasn't settled because the Amendment's wording, "All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States...," was open to interpretation. In 1898, the Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling in the United States v. Wong Kim Ark that firmly established the principle of birthright citizenship in American law. The decision centered around the 14th Amendment and how it should be interpreted.

Departure Statement of Wong Kim Ark, 1894 (National Archives)

The case involved Wong Kim Ark, a cook born in 1873 in San Francisco to Chinese parents who were at the time lawful permanent residents. His parents were among the many Chinese immigrants who came to the U.S., especially California, during the 19th century to work and reside. Yet under the Naturalization Act of 1802, Wong's parents were not eligible to become citizens of the United States. In 1889, his parents moved back to China, and Wong joined them. In China, Wong married and had a child, but he decided to return to the United States again in 1890. Under the provisions of the Chinese Exclusion Act, his family had to stay behind in China. In 1894, Wong made a trip to China to visit them, and when he attempted to re-enter the United States after this trip in 1895, he was denied re-entry under the Chinese Exclusion Acts.

As a U.S. citizen by his birth in San Francisco, Wong sued over being denied re-entry into his country of citizenship. Wong argued that as someone born in the United States, he was a U.S. citizen under the 14th Amendment, regardless of his parents' citizenship status. The U.S. government argued that Wong was not subject to U.S. jurisdiction at birth because his parents were not citizens. So the critical question was -- did the 14th Amendment require both birth in the U.S. and complete allegiance to the U.S. at birth? This set up the Supreme Court case.

Justice Horace Gray

Writing for a 6-2 majority, Justice Horace Gray ruled in Wong's favor that the 14th Amendment conferred citizenship on anyone born in the U.S., except for children of diplomats, enemy aliens, or members of Indian tribes. As long as the person was subject to U.S. jurisdiction at birth, their citizenship did not depend on their parents' citizenship status or national allegiance.

Gray based this interpretation on English common law traditions that the U.S. had inherited regarding birthright citizenship or "jus soli" (right of soil). He cited Lord Coke's definitive 1608 statement that "to be born within the allegiance of the king inherits the same rights as those born of English parents." So, while allegiance at birth was necessary for citizenship, that allegiance derived from being born under the sovereign's jurisdiction, not from the parents' status.

The Wong Kim Ark decision enshrined that the 14th Amendment extended birthright citizenship to everyone born on U.S. soil with few exceptions. It overturned previous racist rulings that had excluded people like Wong from the 14th Amendment's protections.

This birthright principle opened up American citizenship to hundreds of thousands of children born to immigrants in the country, regardless of their parent's citizenship status or national origins. It made the U.S. one of the most permissive countries in granting citizenship based on place of birth rather than blood descent or parents' citizenship.

While some still debate whether the 14th Amendment's framers originally intended such a broad conferral of citizenship, the Wong Kim Ark decision has stood firm for over 120 years. Attempts by some politicians to abolish birthright citizenship in recent decades have faced an uphill battle against this deeply entrenched Supreme Court precedent.

CBS/Getty Images

The history of immigration to the United States is a complex tapestry interweaving opportunity with struggle, assimilation with prejudice. While the nation was built by wave after wave of immigrants seeking a better life, too often, they encountered hostility, violence, and marginalization from parts of the native-born population. Groups like the Irish, Chinese, and many others overcame immense hardship - unequal laws, employment discrimination, segregated ghettos, and even brutal riots targeting their communities. Yet their perseverance to fight for acceptance and equal rights gradually reshaped American society's ethnic makeup and conception of citizenship. The landmark Wong Kim Ark Supreme Court case cemented birthright citizenship as a constitutional principle, finally granting a pathway to complete belonging for the children of immigrants. America's immigration story arcs towards realizing its ideals of equal opportunity, even as prejudices and restrictive impulses create setbacks along that winding road. The diverse nation we know today was forged by generations who proved that the American dream is a resilient and continually evolving promise worth striving for.

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