United States v. Wong Kim Ark, 169 U.S. 649; 18 S. Ct. 456; 42 L. Ed. 890 (1898)

Facts—The collector of the port of San Francisco denied admission into the United States to Wong Kim Ark, a Chinese person who had been born in California and was returning from a temporary visit to China. His parents were subjects of the emperor of China, but had a permanent domicile and residence in the United States and were carrying on business here. They were not employed in any official diplomatic capacity for the emperor of China.

Question—Does a child born in the United States of parents who were subject to a foreign power but not serving in a diplomatic capacity become a citizen of the United States at birth?


ReasonsJ. Gray (7–2). Wong Kim Ark became a citizen at birth by virtue of the first clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, “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 Constitution nowhere defines the meaning of the word “citizen” or “natural-born citizen.” The meaning of the phrase must therefore be interpreted in the light of the common law.

The fundamental principle of the common law was birth within the allegiance of the king. Children of aliens born in England were natural-born subjects, as were children of ambassadors representing England, although born on foreign soil. Children of foreign ambassadors or diplomats or of alien enemies were not natural-born subjects since they were born outside the obedience of the king. This was the rule in all the English colonies up to the Declaration of Independence.

Roman law, which considered the citizenship of the child to be that of the parents, was not a principle of international law since there was no settled and definite rule at the time the Fourteenth Amendment was adopted.

C.J. Fuller’s dissent disputed the validity of English common law precedents and argued that Ark was not a U.S. citizen because, even though born in the United State, he had not, as the Fourteenth Amendment required, been “subject to the jurisdiction” of the United States at birth.

NoteWong Kim Ark is the first instance in which the Court interpreted the citizens clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The two rules of citizenship used universally are jus soli (law of the soil) and jus sanguinis (rule of the blood). The U.S. recognizes both rules.

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