AAPI Exclusion and the Case of Wong Kim Ark

May is Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander (AANHPI) Heritage Month! Today’s post looking at the history of AANHPI immigration comes from Saba Samy, an intern at the National Archives in Washington, DC.

Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander (AANHPI) history and immigration in the United States stretches as far back as the late 18th century. Many key moments have shaped the immigration story for the AANHPI community, with one of the most notable being the Chinese Exclusion Act and the case of the United States v. Wong Kim Ark.

In 1882, Congress passed and President Chester A. Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act. The act authorized a 10-year ban on Chinese laborers immigrating to the U.S. This was the first major federal law that prohibited immigration or entry to the United States based on an ethnic group.

The act was a result of racial tensions, labor unrest, and an increase in Chinese immigration. It required non-laborers who sought entry to the U.S. to obtain certification from the Chinese government that they were qualified to immigrate. But potential immigrants found it difficult to prove their status because the act defined laborers “to mean both skilled and unskilled laborers and Chinese employed in mining.” This allowed very few Chinese to enter the country under the 1882 law.

The act also placed new requirements on Chinese who had already entered the U.S. If they left the country, they had to obtain certifications to reenter. Even more, Congress refused to allow state and federal courts the right to grant citizenship to Chinese resident aliens.

Wong Kim Ark was one of the many people of Chinese descent who were denied reentry into the U.S. due to the Chinese Exclusion Act. He was born in San Francisco, CA, around 1873, and his parents were immigrants from China. However, they were not citizens due to provisions in the Naturalization Act of 1802, which made them ineligible for naturalization.

In 1889, his parents decided to repatriate and move back to China. He joined them but quickly returned in 1890, leaving behind his wife and first child. Even though Wong was a laborer, the rest of his family could not travel to the U.S. with him due to the provisions of the Chinese Exclusion Act.

Wong traveled to China again in 1894 to visit his wife and family, but upon returning to the U.S. in 1895, he was detained and denied reentry. The customs officer argued that Wong was not a citizen despite having been born in the U.S. but was instead a Chinese subject because his parents were Chinese.

The question of the citizenship status of U.S.-born children of alien parents had, up to this time, never been decided by the Supreme Court. So the arguments in Wong’s case were based on the phrase “subject to the jurisdiction thereof” in the Citizenship Clause of the 14th Amendment.

In 1898, the Supreme Court decided that Wong Kim Ark was a citizen and should not have been denied reentry in 1895. The Court stated that “the American citizenship which Wong Kim Ark acquired by birth within the United States has not been lost or taken away by anything happening since his birth.” The decision affirmed the concept of “jus soli” (right of the soil), where citizenship is granted based on place of birth, meaning that virtually all native-born children are U.S. citizens.

While the confirmation of birthright citizenship is an important milestone in the history of U.S. immigration, the AANHPI community still faced many exclusion efforts. The 1907 Japanese Gentleman’s Agreement prohibited immigration to the U.S. unless the individual had previously acquired property or were immediate relatives of existing immigrants. The 1922 case of Takao Ozawa and 1923 case of Bhagat Singh Thind ruled that Japanese and South Asians were not considered White and therefore could not naturalize. And the Immigration Act of 1924, which introduced quotas for immigration based on national origin, included a quota of zero for Asian countries.

It wasn’t until 1952, with the McCarran-Walter Act, that the U.S. abandoned Asian exclusion policies and began to provide Asian immigrants a pathway to American citizenship.

Visit the National Archives website to learn more about our resources and events related to AAPI history.

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