Wong Kim Ark in a photograph from a federal immigration investigation case conducted under the Chinese Exclusion Acts. (Department of Justice via National Archives)
Washington Post (by Fred Barbash):
It was the fall of 1895, and Wong Kim Ark was puzzled and alarmed as he bided his time on the steamship Coptic in San Francisco Bay which had returned him from a visit to China. His papers were in order. He had seen to that. The required statement, certification from white men that he was born in the U.S. and therefore a citizen, were in order. He had traveled to China for a visit and had little trouble being readmitted.
On this occasion, however, authorities denied him entry, returning him to the ship on which he had arrived, and from there to another ship, the Gaelic, and then to the Peking. For four months, the only certainty to Wong’s life was the tides on San Francisco Bay where he awaited word of his fate.
What he could not have known was that he was about to become a “test case” brought by the United States government, egged on by a wave of anti-Chinese sentiment, in an effort to undermine the 14th Amendment “birthright” provision which made Wong a citizen in the first place as the plain and simple language of the amendment said that, “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.”
For the Chinese in America, this was the “exclusion era,” a radical shift for the U.S., which for the most part, since its creation as a republic, had encouraged people to come to its shores. In the beginning, as America built its railroads, mined its gold and farmed the valleys of Northern California, the Chinese were welcomed as well in America. They streamed in by the thousands.
But as the Depression of 1873 took its toll on white working men, they began to look for scapegoats. Mob violence, arson, and overt racist derision swept through California, powered by slogan “the Chinese must go.” Congress enacted the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, designed to put an end to the flow of Chinese into the U.S. But that was not enough for the building anti-Chinese wave.
Thousands of children had been born to Chinese in the U.S. and birthright citizenship was the next target, just as it is today for many Republicans, notably Donald Trump, in their campaign aimed at the children they call “anchor babies,” whose parents enter the U.S. illegally just to make sure their children enjoy the benefits of citizenship. The U.S. is “the only place just about that’s stupid enough” to to do that, he has said, thus providing an incentive for illegal entry. Bills to do just what Trump is advocating have been around for years and have gone nowhere, and many, but not all, scholars believe such a change would need to confront the almost insurmountable task of amending the Constitution.