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Abstract

In theory, birthright citizenship has been well established in U.S. law since 1898, when the Supreme Court held in United States v. Wong Kim Ark that all born on U.S. soil are U.S. citizens. The experience of immigrants and their families over the last 120 years tells a different story, however. This article draws on government records documenting the Wong family’s struggle for legal recognition to illuminate the convoluted history of birthright citizenship.
Newly discovered archival materials reveal that Wong Kim Ark and his family experienced firsthand, and at times shaped, the fluctuating relationship between immigration, citizenship, and access to civil and political rights. The U.S. government reacted to its loss in Wong’s case at first by refusing to accept the rule of birthright citizenship, and then by creating onerous proof-of-citizenship requirements that obstructed recognition of birthright citizenship for certain ethnic groups. But the Wong family’s story is not only about the use and abuse of government power. Government records reveal that the Wongs, like others in their position, learned how to use the immigration bureaucracy to their own advantage, enabling them to establish a foothold in the United States despite the government’s efforts to bar them from doing so.

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