From Wong Kim Ark to the Japanese American Incarceration: Asian Americans and the Racial Limits of Birthright Citizenship
Michael R. Jin
In October 2018 U.S. president Donald J. Trump declared that his administration was ready to issue an executive order to make U.S.-born children of nonresident immigrants ineligible for birthright citizenship, a constitutional right guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. “We are the only country in the world,” he told Jonathan Swan, the host of Axios on HBO, “where a person comes in, has a baby, and [that] baby is essentially a citizen of the United States” with “all of those benefits” of American citizenship. Trump’s attack on birthright citizenship dovetailed with his anti-immigrant rhetoric that had served as a rallying cry for the mobilization of his supporters since his run for presidency. On his campaign trail in 2015, he had already promised to his conservative political base that, in addition to building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, his administration would run a thorough legal review that would eliminate birthright citizenship as a way to shut America’s gates on the future “anchor babies” born to non-citizens.
Although Trump’s bold plan to prevent children of immigrants from becoming U.S. citizens did not amount to an executive order, it nevertheless sparked heated public debates throughout his presidency about the sanctity of the Fourteenth Amendment. However, this attack on the birthright citizenship clause in the U.S. Constitution is far from new in the history of race relations since the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868. From the late nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century, the campaign to eliminate birthright citizenship was dominated by the fierce Asian exclusion movement that shaped the Jim Crow-era regime of race and citizenship in the American West. The popular exclusionist rhetoric based on the representation of Asians as an unassimilable threat to white America during that period aimed at stripping the birthright citizenship of U.S.-born Asian Americans.
In my work, I examine the widespread anti-Japanese exclusion movement in the American West that sought to strip the birthright citizenship of U.S.-born Japanese Americans (Nisei) in the early decades of the twentieth century. During the era of intense anti-Asian sentiment that culminated in the strictest immigration laws in U.S. history, a powerful coalition of nativist groups, organized labor, anti-immigrant organizations, and the agricultural community in western states lobbied vigorously to eliminate the Nisei’s American citizenship. Although this legislative campaign did not succeed in its ultimate goal of stripping Japanese Americans’ Fourteenth Amendment right of birthright citizenship, the fierce anti-Japanese sentiment nevertheless manifested itself in systemic racial discrimination that rendered U.S.-born Nisei second-class citizens. Such widespread hostility toward Americans of Japanese ancestry throughout the decades prior to World War II exacerbated the wartime racial hysteria after Pearl Harbor and culminated in the mass incarceration of all Japanese Americans from the U.S. West Coast from 1942 to 1946.
The U.S.-born children of Asian immigrants have occupied an ambivalent place in the history of the Jim Crow-era discourse on race and citizenship. Much has been written about the exclusionary immigration laws and judicial measures, such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the 1922 Supreme Case Takao Ozawa v. United States, which excluded Asian immigrants from American citizenry. However, the exclusion of Asians in the United States—both foreign-born and U.S.-born citizens—based on the powerful Orientalist idea of their perceived unassimilability, actively shaped the exclusionist politics that sought to police the racial boundaries of birthright citizenship. From the late nineteenth century to the eve of World War II, the deeply entrenched culture and politics of anti-Asian xenophobia served as the most powerful source of the exclusionists’ attack on the Fourteenth Amendment. The specter of yellow peril that had fueled anti-Asian hysteria since the nineteenth century thus blurred the line between citizens and aliens for people of Asian ancestry. Race—and anti-Asian racism—has played an integral role in the movement to test the limits of birthright citizenship in the Jim Crow American West.
Asian Americans and Jim Crow: Racial Limits of Birthright Citizenship
The racialization of Asian American citizens as perpetual foreigners intimately shaped racial politics since the Fourteenth Amendment had restored the legal citizenship of African Americans in 1868. The best-known case that tested the racial boundaries of birthright citizenship, the 1898 Supreme Court case United States vs. Wong Kim Ark, ruled that the Fourteenth Amendment granted American citizenship to all persons born in the United States regardless of race. Wong Kim Ark was born in San Francisco in 1873 to immigrants from China, who were not eligible to become U.S. citizens because the Naturalization Act of 1790 had granted only “free white persons” the right to become naturalized citizens. Wong’s parents moved back to China, but he remained in his hometown of San Francisco. He traveled to China to visit his parents on two occasions, in 1880 and 1884. When he returned to San Francisco from his second trip to China in 1895, the U.S. collector of customs invoked the Chinese Exclusion Act to deny his entry to his country of birth, claiming that Wong’s Chinese parentage made him a non-citizen. Wong challenged the U.S. government’s decision to treat him as a subject of the Qing Empire and fought his way to the Supreme Court to recover his birthright citizenship.
In the landmark decision that protected the sanctity of the U.S. Constitution’s birthright citizenship clause, the Court ruled in favor of restoring Wong Kim Ark’s American citizenship regardless of his race or ancestry. However, the opinion shared by the two dissenting justices, Melville Fuller and John Marshall Harlan, nevertheless represented the dominant public perception of Asians in America, which had compelled the U.S. government to strip his citizenship in the first place. Fuller and Harlan argued that “notwithstanding the Fourteenth Amendment,” the U.S. government had made the right decision to take away Wong’s birthright citizenship because he was a member of the Chinese “race” whose “belief” and “traditions” made him unassimilable to American way of life. Two years before Wong Kim Ark, Harlan had already demonstrated his anti-Chinese racial prejudice when he was the sole dissenter in the landmark Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson. In his defense of Black citizens’ Fourteenth Amendment rights, the outspoken justice had deployed the similar rhetoric of the Chinese’ perpetual foreignness to establish the racial limits of U.S. citizenship. Harlan argued in his dissent in Plessy v. Ferguson that the Chinese were “a race so different from our own that we do not permit those belonging to it to become citizens of the United States.” The dissenting justice, who would go down in history as a champion of civil rights, lamented that “a Chinaman” in the American South was allowed to sit with white passengers in a train car while Black citizens were criminalized for breaking segregation laws. The widespread anti-Chinese sentiment actively shaped the architecture of the Jim Crow-era race relations and institution of citizenship, even in the emerging discourse of civil rights.
Although Fuller and Harlan failed in their attempt to strip Wong Kim Ark’s birthright citizenship in 1898, the anti-Asian sentiment expressed in their dissenting opinion would continue to shape the American culture of xenophobia. At the turn of the twentieth century, leading West Coast anti-immigrant activists targeted Japanese as the new “immigrant menace” and campaigned for the exclusion of all persons of Japanese ancestry, both immigrants and their native-born children. For instance, in 1906, the San Francisco Board of Education forced Japanese American students to attend the city’s segregated Chinese school. The school board rescinded the segregation order only when President Theodore Roosevelt intervened by promising a more restrictive measure to block Japanese immigration to California. This negotiation led to the Gentlemen’s Agreement in 1907, which compelled the Japanese government to seize the passports of migrant laborers bound for the United States.
By 1920, leading nativist groups, white farmer’s organizations, and labor unions had joined forces with prominent leaders in the politics and media to form the Japanese Exclusion League. In addition to lobbying for the strictest laws that would block the entry of all Japanese immigrants, these anti-Japanese agitators also led concerted efforts to strip U.S.-born Nisei of their citizenship rights. One of the leading voices of this exclusion movement, Valentine Stuart McClatchy, actively penned the League’s manifestos calling for the complete expulsion of the Japanese in America. McClatchy saw U.S.-born Japanese Americans as a greater long-term threat to “our existence as a Nation” than their Japanese parents because of the Nisei’s U.S. citizenship by birth. He declared the Nisei “absolutely unassimilable,” with “racial characteristics” identical to their Japanese parents. McClatchy was especially alarmed that as U.S. citizens by birth, the Nisei were exempted from exclusionary legal measures, such as California’s alien land law, which prohibited Japanese immigrants from owning agricultural properties. In 1919 McClatchy declared that “Asiatics shall be forever barred from American citizenship.” He also announced the exclusion movement’s ultimate goal of amending the Fourteenth Amendment “so as to provide that no child born in the United States of foreign parents” ineligible for citizenship, such as Japanese immigrants, “shall be eligible to American citizenship.” McClatchy argued that continuing to grant birthright citizenship to the growing number of U.S.-born Nisei would be “a striking exemplification of the suicidal policy.” In 1921, the Japanese Exclusion League of California adopted McClatchy’s proposal to issue a resolution calling for federal laws that would take away U.S. citizenship from “races of yellow color.” The California state legislature endorsed the League’s resolution.
Although the Japanese Exclusion League’s campaign, too, failed to overturn Wong Kim Ark, it would continue to sustain the fierce anti-Asian sentiment throughout the decades prior to World War II. The relentless attack on the birthright citizenship of Asian Americans came to fruition soon after Pearl Harbor, when Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 in early 1942 gave the U.S. Department of War the authority to round up Japanese and Japanese Americans. Lieutenant General John L. DeWitt of the Army’s Western Defense Command justified the U.S. government’s “military necessity” for the forced evacuation of Japanese Americans from the West Coast based on the existing white nationalist representation of the Nisei as essentially Japanese aliens. DeWitt famously defended the incarceration of Japanese Americans by claiming that “it makes no difference whether [a U.S.-born Nisei] is an American citizen; he is still a Japanese.” The sweeping characterization of Japanese Americans as unassimilable foreigners and dangerous enemy aliens engendered enthusiastic public support for the mass wartime incarceration of these U.S. citizens without due process. Prominent West Coast political leaders, such as California attorney general Earl Warren, endorsed Roosevelt’s executive order as a means to remove the Japanese population from their states.
The history of the World War II Japanese American incarceration is arguably the most widely taught and debated topic in Asian American studies. Yet, the longer history of anti-Asian xenophobia and the campaign to remove the Nisei’s birthright citizenship throughout the first half of the twentieth century remains a topic much less discussed. U.S.-born Nisei’s confrontation with the exclusion movement’s attack on their birthright citizenship during those interwar decades revealed that the promise for Nisei’s American citizenship had been denied well before their forced exile behind barbed wire during World War II.
Nevertheless, many Japanese Americans, like Wong Kim Ark before them, resisted their government’s violation of their constitutional rights and fought vigorously to reclaim their birthright citizenship. Some disobeyed the evacuation order, organized protests in the incarceration camps, and even spent the war years in maximum security prisons for resisting the draft. Many Nisei refused to answer positively to the “loyalty questionnaire,” the document which all incarcerees were required to complete in 1943 to become eligible for release from camps. Others, like Fred Korematsu, Gordon Hirabayashi, and Mitsuye Endo, waged legal battles with their government to restore their rights, and, like Wong Kim Ark, fought their way to the Supreme Court. Although the dominant narrative of the Japanese American incarceration and redress movement has depicted the Nisei as patriotic victims of racism who quietly proved their loyalty to the United States, the stories of these Japanese American resisters defy that popular model minority thesis. As much as Asian Americans have been the target of the systemic attack on their American citizenship, they also have actively reclaimed their birthright citizenship; they have been at the forefront of the movement to protect the sanctity of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Race, Citizenship, and the Fourteenth Amendment
Decades before the World War II mass incarceration of Japanese Americans, the leading anti-immigrant agitators in the United States had relentlessly campaigned to eliminate the birthright citizenship of Asian Americans. Since then, the racial hostility toward Asian Americans, Latinx Americans, and more recently, Middle Eastern, Muslim, and Arab Americans have continued to sustain the nativist sentiment that the children of non-white immigrants were not worthy of the constitutional protection of their birthright citizenship. Moreover, the representation of Asian Americans as perpetual foreigners has continued to fuel widespread xenophobia, as demonstrated by the rise in racial violence and hate crimes committed against Asians and Asian Americans during the Covid-19 pandemic. Asian Americans’ confrontation with this powerful feature of American xenophobia since the nineteenth century demonstrates that the anti-immigrant sentiment and various exclusionary legal measures designed to stop the influx of migrants do not simply affect the immigrant generation. The most consequential impact of the anti-immigrant sentiment and the politics of xenophobia is the threat to their U.S.-born children’s future in this country. Trump’s failed attack on birthright citizenship was only one of the countless attempts to strip those American children of their constitutional rights. Here is hoping that Wong Kim Ark’s protection of the Fourteenth Amendment will continue to withstand white nationalist campaigns to test the racial boundaries of birthright citizenship.
Michael R. Jin is assistant professor of Global Asian Studies and History at the University of Illinois Chicago. He is the author of Citizens, Immigrants, and the Stateless: A Japanese American Diaspora in the Pacific.
“Trump Interview,” dir. Matthew O’Neill and Perri Peltz, Axios on HBO, Episode 1.1., November 4, 2018. Home Box Office (HBO).
“The Anchor-Baby Question At the G.O.P. Debate,” The New Yorker, Sept. 15, 2015.
See, for example, “Trump’s Proposal to End Birthright Citizenship Is Unconstitutional,” Washington Post, Oct. 20, 2018; and “Citizenship Shouldn’t Be a Birthright,” Washington Post, July 18, 2018.
Michael R. Jin, Citizens, Immigrants, and the Stateless: A Japanese American Diaspora in the Pacific (2022), 17-21, 41-44, 54-55.
United States v. Wong Kim Ark, 169 U.S. 649 (1898).
Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896).
“For Heaven’s Sake Do not Embarrass the Administration,” Harper’s Weekly, Nov. 10, 1906; Roger Daniels, The Politics of Prejudice: The Anti-Japanese Movement in California and the Struggle for Japanese Exclusion (1962), 35-36.
Valentine Stuart McClatchy, “The Germany of Asia: Japan’s Policy in the Far East; Her ‘Peaceful Penetration’ of the United States; How American Commercial and National Interests are Affected” (April 1919); and Valentine Stuart McClatchy, “Assimilation of Japanese: Can They Be Moulded into American Citizens?” (October 21, 1921), in V. S. McClatchy, ed., Four Anti-Japanese Pamphlets (1978), 13-19, 33.
Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians, Personal Justice Denied: Report of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians (1982), 68-69, 73.
See Alice Yang Murray, Historical Memories of the Japanese American Interment and the Struggle for Redress (2008) for multiple and competing representations of this history.