Meet Wong Kim Ark, who was born in San Francisco in 1873 to Chinese immigrant parents. After a visit to China in 1895, he sailed back to San Francisco only to be detained by Collector of Customs on the grounds that the Chinese Exclusion Act forbid entry for Chinese immigrants. Ark insisted he was an American citizen by virtue of his birth in America. The California government argued that he wasn’t because he was born from two Chinese immigrants and therefore was a subject of the emperor of China.
Some have asserted that this was the first time that the legal term “Yellow” came up to distinguish “White rights” from those of people from Chinese descent. In the general media of the time, however, the term, “Yellow Peril”, had already been commonly used to inflame the general public’s paraonia about Chinese laborers taking over jobs at lower pay.
The Chinese Consulate in San Francisco along with some Chinese business groups filed a writ habeas corpus on Ark’s behalf in federal court and gained his release. The government appealed to the US Supreme Court and the case hinged on the first clause of the Fourteenth Amendment which states “… all persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States.” In a 6-2 decision, the court ruled that a child born of two Chinese Nationals legally present on American soil was an American citizen and thus entitled to all the rights and privileges.
The case allowed three of his four sons to be recognized as US citizens as well and were allowed to come to America. The fourth, the eldest, was denied on US officials claim that there were discrepancies in the testimony of his hearing, and insignificant proof that he was actually Ark’s son.
Wong Kim Ark’s case has been since referred to in various immigration cases. Even today, this landmark case causes debate within the context of the modern immigration debate.
I learned about this case at the Korean American Bar Association (KABA) dinner in Seattle, where the organization gave away scholarships to deserving Korean-American law students. The growth of the Asian American attorney community ensures better representation across the American courts. Hopefully, we will take our growing representation to ensure the same opportunity for new immigrants regardless of race.
To me, Wong Kim Ark is an American hero, and an important piece of the history that has shaped today’s America. And all of us Asian-Americans cannot forget his story.