UC Law SF Center Explores Landmark Birthright Citizenship Case

Wong Kim Ark’s lawsuit led to an 1898 Supreme Court decision recognizing that everyone born in the United States has automatic citizenship.

To mark the 125-year anniversary of a court ruling that guaranteed birthright citizenship in the United States, a group of law professors, historians, and SF Chinatown community members will gather for a series of commemorative events in late March.

The Center for Race, Immigration, Citizenship, and Equality (RICE) at UC Law San Francisco is hosting a March 23 lecture and co-sponsoring a panel discussion and community event on March 25 to discuss the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1898 decision in United States v. Wong Kim Ark.

professional woman wearing blue suit talks during panel discussion

Ming Hsu Chen is a professor of law and director of RICE at UC Law SF.

“The legacy of Wong Kim Ark is a bulwark in the continuing struggle to define who gets be an American,” said Ming Hsu Chen, law professor and director of RICE at UC Law SF. “It stands for the proposition that children born in the U.S. are American, notwithstanding if their parents are Black, Asian, or Latinx.”

Born in San Francisco in 1873, Wong Kim Ark was denied reentry to the U.S. after visiting family abroad under the Chinese Exclusion Act. With legal assistance from the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (CCBA), he sued the federal government, and in 1898, the Supreme Court recognized that birthright citizenship is guaranteed under the Fourteenth Amendment.

Here are details of three events to commemorate this historic Supreme Court case:

  • Thursday, March 23, 12:30 – 1:30 p.m. at the Cothcett Law Center, 333 Golden Gate Ave. and on Zoom
    • Lecture: University of Michigan Law Professor Sam Erman will speak about Wong Kim Ark and contemporary threats to birthright citizenship at the Cotchett Law Center on UC Law SF campus. The lecture is part of a series of talks on race, citizenship, and equality sponsored by RICE. Register for in-person or virtual attendance here.
  • Saturday, March 25, 10:30 – 11:30a.m. at Victory Hall, 827 Stockton St.
    • A community celebration will feature local government officials and prominent members of the SF Chinatown community at Victory Hall, 827 Stockton St., in SF Chinatown. Register here to attend.
  • Saturday, March 25, 12 – 1:30 p.m. at Victory Hall, 827 Stockton St.
    • A panel talk and reception will follow the community celebration at Victory Hall in SF Chinatown. Chen will moderate the discussion between four panelists: UC Davis Law Professor Gabriel “Jack” Chin, University of Virginia Law Professor Amanda Frost, Susana Liu-Hedberg of the 1990 Institute, and UC Berkeley Law Professor Charles McClain ’74. Register here to attend.

University of Michigan Law Professor Sam Erman will speak about Wong Kim Ark and birthright citizenship at UC Law San Francisco on March 23.

At the March 23 lecture, Erman will discuss the white supremacist origins of U.S. legal arguments that citizenship should be based on one’s parents rather than one’s birthplace. “We today live in an age where birthright citizenship is again under attack,” Erman said.

The second event on March 25 will feature local government leaders and prominent community members discussing the importance of Wong Kim Ark and other historic court cases funded by the CCBA in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Wong Kim Ark is one of more than 20 cases sponsored by the CCBA as part of concerted effort to push back against the Chinese Exclusion Act and other discriminatory laws,” said David Lei, a co-organizer of the events and longtime member of the SF Chinatown community.

The third event on March 25 will include a panel discussion on the legal and historical implications of Wong Kim Ark followed by a reception.

John Trasviña, a co-organizer of the events and former dean of the University of San Francisco School of Law, previously helped organize a centennial commemoration of Wong Kim Ark in 1998 on behalf of the U.S. Department of Justice. “We’re really excited to reintroduce Wong Kim Ark to new people and to remind others that Chinese American leadership on civil rights dates back to the 1880s,” Trasviña said. “I’m pleased to be partnering with the RICE Center, an academic institution with a clear eye on public policy and community impact.”

Victor Qiu ’24 is the treasurer of APALSA at UC Law San Francisco.

Victor Qiu, treasurer of the Asian Pacific American Law Student Association (APALSA) at UC Law SF, said his organization is helping promote the events and recruiting volunteers, “The story of children of immigrants fighting for their legal recognition is part of the broader American story.”

The events also coincide with the launch of a campaign, co-led by the 1990 Institute, to gain national recognition of Wong Kim Ark’s birthplace in SF Chinatown. “It’s an important piece of our nation’s history and showcases how the Supreme Court has played and continues to play a pivotal role in ensuring rights for not just the Asian American Pacific Islander community but for all Americans,” said Liu-Hedberg, executive director of the 1990 Institute, which promotes education to build bridges between the U.S., China, and Asian Americans.

The events are co-sponsored by RICE, CCBA, Chinese Historical Society of America, the 1990 Institute, Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation, Asian American Bar Association of the Greater Bay Area, and the Northern California Chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.