How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Who was Wong Kim Ark? How a son of immigrants helped define who is a U.S. citizen

Photo from Wikipedia Commons

Wong Kim Ark

At the heart of the coming battle over the constitutional right to U.S. citizenship for everyone born in this country is how the 14th Amendment, adopted in 1868, is interpreted. And at the heart of that interpretation is a 112-year-old Supreme Court decision, based on a lawsuit filed by a young man from San Francisco named Wong Kim Ark.

Wong is relatively little known to history. But his case, decided in 1898, affirmed the right to citizenship for the children of Chinese immigrants, at time barred from naturalizing - and set a precedent for all children of immigrants, regardless of their parents' status.

Wong was in his early twenties, a cook by trade, when he crossed paths with immigration officials. He was born in 1873 and raised in San Francisco by his Chinese immigrant parents who, eight years after the passage of the discriminatory Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, engaged in what today might be called attrition through enforcement: After 20 years in the United States, they packed their bags, boarded a westbound steamship and moved back to China.

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Bloggers on the 14th Amendment battle

Photo by Victoria Bernal/Flickr (Creative Commons)

A baby at a May Day rally in downtown Los Angeles, May 1, 2010

Those who write about immigration, politics, and the intersection of the two have had quite a bit to work with since Wednesday, when several GOP state legislators announced that they'd be introducing bills at the state level in hopes of forcing a U.S. Supreme Court review of the 14th Amendment.

Adopted shortly after the Civil War, the constitutional amendment guarantees U.S. citizenship for everyone who is born in this country. The goal of the anti-birthright citizenship lawmakers is to deny citizenship to children of undocumented immigrants.

In one recent post, The New Republic's Adam Serwer highlights a quote from anti-birthright citizenship advocate Sen. Russell Pearce of Arizona (from the Washington Times, via ColorLines), pointing out the statement as historically incorrect. Pearce was quoted as saying that the amendment was meant to apply to African Americans and that its sponsors "specifically said it didn't apply to foreigners or aliens." Serwer writes:

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The model bill to challenge the 14th Amendment

Photo by Chuck Coker/Flickr (Creative Commons)

U.S. Constitution art, September 2008

As had been planned, a group of conservative state legislators convened in Washington, D.C. this morning to unveil what they termed "14th Amendment Misapplication State Legislation."

A press release from the office of Pennsylvania state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, a leader in the anti-birthright citizenship movement, listed a series of Republican state legislators from Pennsylvania, Arizona, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Georgia as attending the unveiling press conference, all part of a national coalition of immigration restriction-minded legislators.

The idea is for legislators in individual states to introduce bills based on the model legislation, written as a blanket bill to be applied in any state, in order to force a Supreme Court review of the 14th Amendment of the United States Constitution.

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