President Trump would like to ban birthright citizenship – that is, a person’s right to citizenship by virtue of birth in the United States – via an executive order. But he cannot do so thanks to a man named Wong Kim Ark, who was born nearly a century and half ago in San Francisco.

Wong Kim Ark was born in 1873 to parents who were citizens of China but living in California as temporary laborers. Sometime around 1890, they returned to China, but Arc stayed here. In 1892, the United States enacted the Chinese Exclusion Act, prohibiting immigration from China. Arc’s parents would now have been illegal aliens had they tried to return to California.In 1894, Ark visited China, returning to San Francisco in 1895. But he was forbidden entry into the United States on the grounds he was not a citizen and was subject to the Chinese Exclusion Act. Ark sued in federal court arguing that he had a right to return to California because he was a citizen of the United States thanks to his birth here.

This lawsuit led to a US Supreme Court ruling that absolutely settled the question of birthright citizenship: if you were born in the United States, you were a United States citizen. Period. No Trump executive order or act of congress can change this.
At issue was the language of the 14th Amendment passed in 1868 that reads: “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.” This seems pretty clear, but the argument at the time was that the 14th Amendment was intended to simply grant citizenship to slaves freed by the Civil War.

So true said the Court, but the intent goes beyond that, and it grants citizenship to everyone born in the United States, even the lowly and then detested Chinese. To make its case, the Court, in a lengthy opinion, dealt first with citizenship of English subjects. The Court showed that over hundreds of years English law had established that if you were born in England, you were a citizen of England. This notion of citizenship was then brought to the American colonies and adopted into our Constitution.
The 1890s was a time of massive immigration from Europe, and the Court noted that to deny birthright citizenship would deny citizenship to millions of new Americans: “To hold that the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution excludes from citizenship the children, born in the United States, of citizens or subjects of other countries would be to deny citizenship to thousands of persons of English, Scotch, Irish, German, or other European parentage who have always been considered and treated as citizens of the United States.”

But what about the Chinese? Here we had a different situation, Chinese living especially along the west coast were subject to all sorts of discrimination, forced to live in “Chinatowns”, denied the right to vote, and later, denied the right to own property. Thanks to the Chinese Exclusion Act, they were specifically forbidden from immigrating to the United States, and Arc’s parents would have been illegal aliens had they tried to come back.

Well, said the Supreme Court none of that mattered. “The fact that acts of Congress or treaties have not permitted Chinese persons born out of this country to become citizens by naturalization, cannot exclude Chinese persons born in this country from the operation of the broad and clear words of the Constitution: all persons born in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States.”

The Court also explained exactly what citizenship meant. “The Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution … contemplates two sources of citizenship, and two only: birth and naturalization. Citizenship by naturalization can only be acquired by naturalization under the authority and in the forms of law. But citizenship by birth is established by the mere fact of birth under the circumstances defined in the Constitution. Every person born in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, becomes at once a citizen of the United States, and needs no naturalization.”

“Upon the facts agreed in this case, the American citizenship which Wong Kim Ark acquired by birth within the United States has not been lost or taken away by anything happening since his birth.”

So Wong Kim Ark won his case, in a Supreme Court ruling that once and for all defined what an American citizen is. This case has stood the test of time for more than a century, and there is no likelihood it will be changed any time soon.

Ark return to China sometime after his case was settled, and lived out his life there, dying probably after World War II. He may be forgotten today, but the principal that his lawsuit established is not.