The young man was born in San Francisco to parents of Chinese descent. After returning from a visit to his ancestral home via the steamship Coptic, he was detained by customs agents and refused entry to the United States. Federal prosecutors claimed he should be sent back to China because he wasn't a U.S. citizen and was barred under the Chinese Exclusion Act.
But on this date 113 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the government was wrong about Wong Kim Ark. He was indeed a U.S. citizen by virtue of his birth 25 years earlier on American soil, despite the fact that his parents were neither citizens nor eligible for citizenship.
Why is this decision important today?
Because the notion of birthright citizenship -- guaranteed by the 14th Amendment and upheld by the 1898 Supreme Court decision in United States vs. Wong Kim Ark -- is once again a flash point in our volatile debate over immigration.
Derided as "anchor babies" and even "terror babies," the children of today's undocumented immigrants are under attack by a coalition of state lawmakers backed by the nativist lobby. These lawmakers, under the umbrella of State Legislators for Legal Immigration (SLLI), claim that birthright citizenship was never intended to and should not apply to these children. They recently announced a campaign to enact a series of state laws that would try to remove this citizenship right - in effect, rewriting the 14th Amendment.
They've raised the specter of "hundreds of thousands of illegal aliens ... crossing the U.S. borders to give birth or exploit their child." SLLI founder Daryl Metcalfe, a Pennsylvania lawmaker, warned of an "invasion" of immigrants responsible for "identity theft, property theft, drug running, human trafficking, sexual assaults, murder, increased gang activity, terrorism and ... many other clear and present dangers."
We've heard it all before.
When the 14th Amendment was debated in Congress in 1866, there was no shortage of angst over the fact that it would apply to the children of immigrants who were not U.S. citizens. In language remarkably similar in tone to that employed by today's nativists, Sen. Edgar Cowan of Pennsylvania warned that birthright citizenship could result in "a flood of immigration of the Mongol race." Millions of Chinese might pour unimpeded into California, where they could quickly outnumber - and outcompete - native Americans. Thieving, swindling, trespassing Gypsies could overrun the country, and "people from Borneo, man-eaters or cannibals, if you please" would be given free rein to wreak their havoc in our country.
Sen. John Conness of California rose in defense of the amendment. He conceded that "it may be very good capital in an electioneering campaign to declaim against the Chinese." But he pointed out that they were an "industrious people ... now passing from mining into other branches of industry," including farming and "building the Pacific railroad." Their children, and also those of Gypsies born in this country, should be regarded as U.S. citizens, he said. No person "claiming to have a high humanity" could take a contrary position.
Congress approved the amendment, and it became part of the Constitution in 1868 after being ratified by the states. One of three Reconstruction-era amendments, it begins: "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."
The Supreme Court ruling 30 years later reaffirmed its inclusion of children born on U.S. soil, regardless of their parents' citizenship status. Today, the amendment enshrines and protects bedrock principles of our democracy, guaranteeing equality and due process to all.
The campaign to rewrite the 14th Amendment is gaining little traction. Hoping to bring the issue before the Supreme Court once again, lawmakers have introduced bills in at least seven states. So far, none have passed, and bills have died in Arizona, Mississippi and South Dakota. That's a good sign.
But it doesn't mean the nativist lobby will back off its fearmongering campaign.
The reality is that this concern over "anchor babies" -- that hordes of immigrants are streaming across the border to have babies -- is based on a complete fallacy. A study by the Pew Hispanic Center found that the vast majority of children of undocumented parents were born at least a year after their parents arrived.
Besides, most immigrants come to the United States to escape poverty and find jobs. As President Obama said in El Salvador recently, more economic opportunity in that country would go a long way toward ensuring "that people don't feel like they have to head north to provide for their families."
But the campaign against immigrants has never been about facts. As Sen. Conness noted in 1866, it's about politics.