Birthright citizenship, past and present

Nice profile of the history and 1898 case that resulted in birthright citizenship in the USA:

Who’s American?

The Trump administration’s troubling attack against immigrants and the children of immigrants continues. The State Department is denying or slowing passport applications from people with official U.S. birth certificates in states along the southern border; there have been repeated requests for additional documentation.

The government is alleging that some midwives and doctors provided fraudulent certificates over the decades, in a crackdown that’s swept up U.S. military veterans and those with certificates originating hundreds of miles from the border.

The move comes in the wake of the administration’s plans to make it harder for legal permanent residents with green cards to become citizens.

As the American-born daughter of Chinese immigrants, I’m outraged by this onslaught.

Birthright citizenship is vital to this country, making it possible for immigrant families to integrate and build a life here.

Eliminating or curtailing birthright citizenship wouldn’t fix our broken immigration system. These racist, xenophobic efforts to block paths to citizenship, whether through naturalization or at birth, could disenfranchise millions of people and generations of families.

The question of who has a right to be an American has been debated throughout our country’s history. Following the Civil War, the 14th Amendment in 1868 granted citizenship and equal rights to African American slaves who had been emancipated, to all those “born or naturalized” (the decision rectified the Dred Scott case, in which an enslaved man sued for his freedom, and lost).

Three decades later, Wong Kim Ark, the son of Chinese immigrants — born at 751 Sacramento St. in San Francisco — challenged the government’s refusal to recognize his citizenship.

In those days, under the harsh terms of the Chinese Exclusion Act, in order to travel outside of the United States, people of Chinese descent had to get a signed affidavit by white witnesses who could vouch for them and their citizenship.

To me, this bureaucratic obstruction is a parallel to the government’s additional requests for documentation from certain passport applicants.

Though Wong had the required paperwork, customs barred him from landing after his trip to China, by claiming that he was not a U.S. citizen.

He had made the round trip as a teenager, and had been allowed to return. With the support of the Chinese Six Companies — a Chinatown benevolent organization — the cook fought his case to the Supreme Court. In 1898, the court ruled in Wong’s favor, upholding that a child born in the U.S. automatically became a citizen.

To exclude Wong would have denied citizenship to those of English, Scottish, Irish or other European parentage who had always been considered and treated as citizens, Justice Horace Gray wrote in the majority opinion.

The fascinating 2014 documentary “14: Dred Scott, Wong Kim Ark and Vanessa Lopez” — about the history of the 14th Amendment and the debate over birthright citizenship that rages on — includes interviews with Wong’s great-granddaughter, Sandra, a native of San Francisco.

“You can only imagine what he might have felt. If you talked to him, what would he have had to say about these experiences … having to do it over and over again,” Sandra Wong says in the documentary, contemplating his years of legal battles.

“My ancestor stood up and took on the challenge,” she says. “He was brave enough to do it. He was just a regular guy; it wasn’t like he wanted to be a hero. He wanted to fight for his right, and so you do what you have to do.”

How terrifying, how daunting it must have been, to fight the powers that be.

Although I don’t remember learning about Wong’s case among the landmark Supreme Court cases that we studied as schoolchildren, he deserves a place among those whose cases changed the fates of the generations who followed him.

My family owes thanks to him, and so do other children of immigrants, and everyone in this country who has benefited from contributions of those who hailed from elsewhere but embraced the United States as a home and a haven.

Yet Wong’s story doesn’t end with the court case, with him living happily ever after in the Bay Area. Eventually, he returned to China, quite possibly because of the rampant discrimination Chinese and Chinese Americans faced at that time. To his family, he spoke little about what had happened.

Yet his descendants later returned to America, in search of the same opportunity and freedom that has drawn immigrants from the beginning, and draws them still — and that we must strive to protect now.

Source: Birthright citizenship, past and present

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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