Riding Wong Kim Ark to combat GOP’s anchor baby talk, and thanks to family of Dr. Suzanne Ahn


One hundred twenty years ago, in the latter part of August, the U.S. picked a fight with Wong Kim Ark, who then took his case all the way to the Supreme Court. Wong was simply coming back from a vacation to China, when he was denied re-entry in San Francisco.

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His Chinese parents weren’t citizens, but they lived in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Wong was born right there at 751 Sacramento Street, behind Old Saint Mary’s Cathedral.Wong was a U.S. citizen and #NotYourAnchorBaby. But what is that? The illegitimate love child of Connie Chung and Dan Rather? No, in today’s parlance, “anchor baby” refers to the American-born child of non-citizen immigrants, who “use” the baby to get all the benefits of citizenship. In the 1890s of Wong, saying “anchor baby” would just seem strange, unless you were a drunken sailor.These days, Tea Party-types and birthers, those midwives of xenophobic hate, like to use the anchor-baby rhetoric because it’s cute, masking how downright offensive the term really is.

Sure, politicians love to kiss all babies–just not those darn anchor babies.Perfect for The Donald, the candidate who believes he’s invincible like a human trump card, better than all. He’s been trumping the GOP candidates left and right and playing the anchor baby card. But in his zeal to defend the Constitution, Trump, like many others, have a massive blind spot.It’s called “history.”And that’s where Wong Kim Ark trumps Trump.It’s imperative to invoke Wong every few years, whenever the xenophobes in places like Louisiana, Georgia, Texas, and Arizona, get their dander up about immigration and start throwing up the “anchor baby” rhetoric. The first time I even heard of Wong, who was always a relatively obscure constitutional law milestone, I was writing columns at San Francisco’s AsianWeek, where I went amok for 15 years.

Since then, in my five years writing in this AALDEF space, I’ve written about Wong once before in 2011, when the Tea Party crowd in Arizona revved up the anti-immigrant frenzy and tried to codify an actual two-tier citizenship system. Imagine the possible marketing ads: Come home all ye anchor babies to Arizona, where you can be an official second class citizen! Thankfully, that law didn’t pass. But here we are in 2016, and everything old is new again.A new batch of GOP hopefuls are trying to convince conservatives that they are more hateful than the other. And there really isn’t anything better in the campaign trick bag to divide the base and make one seem more of a conservative bad-ass than to use anti-immigrant, anchor baby rhetoric.It leaves good “citizen historians” little option but to ram back birther ignorance with a little chapter and verse from the legal file of Wong Kim Ark, U.S. citizen.

The final graph of Justice Horace Gray’s majority opinion on birthright citizenship reads:

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. No doubt he might himself, after coming of age, renounce this citizenship and become a citizen of the country of his parents, or of any other country; for, by our law, as solemnly declared by Congress, “the right of expatriation is a natural and inherent right of all people,” and any declaration, instruction, opinion, order or direction of any officer of the United States which denies, restricts, impairs or questions the right of expatriation, is declared inconsistent with the fundamental principles of the Republic.

In many ways, Wong’s fight for what should have been a no-brainer–birthright citizenship–has been the basic problem of American identity.What does an American look like? A real one, of course. Is it just White, like all those non-natives who thought they had arrived first? Can an American really look like any of us–Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Indian, Korean, etc.–all who stand under the AAPI umbrella?Our Founding Fathers bought into the English common law of birthright citizenship when they forged the Constitution. When Wong took his case to the Supreme Court, there was little question that “birth by soil,” an idea that is nearly as old as dirt, would stand.

But let’s not give Justice Gray too much credit for an heroic Wong Kim Ark decision. He also was in the majority in Plessy v. Ferguson, which upheld the idea of “separate but equal.”Still, the Wong Kim Ark decision has held for more than 100 years. And though legal scholars and historians consider it settled law, campaigning politicians consider it an ideal subject to unsettle and disrupt. History, however, is on your side. Born here? Stand your ground. It’s your birth right. Fight back the birthers by trumping them with Wong Kim Ark. DR. SUZANNE AHN AWARD FOR CIVIL RIGHTS AND SOCIAL JUSTICELast Saturday, I was humbled and honored to be named the winner of the Asian American Journalists Association’s Dr. Suzanne Ahn Award for Civil Rights and Social Justice.


Dr. Ahn was a Korean immigrant who grew up in Arkansas and later became a prominent physician, neurologist and inventor. She died of lung cancer in 2003 when she was just 51. But with the award, she is remembered as a civil rights fighter.“She made a conscious effort to include anyone regardless of their background, if they too shared her passion for righting wrongs and exposing injustices,” her niece Suzy Pak told me. “In her later years, she used her stature in the community to expose discrimination against Asian Americans at many levels. Despite the attempts to intimidate or discount her position, she never backed down. Ever.

Pak continued: “I can recount stories of her going to the White House to meet with senators to discuss bills that were discriminatory. She was not afraid to stand up for w hat was right, and felt compelled to fight for those who were not in positions to be able to do so. She realized that the press was the most efficient way to reach the largest number or people, across all socioeconomic lines.”

“She recognized the great importance journalists play in alerting the general public of social injustices, ” Pak said to me. “She wanted to establish a way to recognize journalists who go above and beyond in advancing the rights for the AAPI community.”

“She wanted to offer some recognition to those who shared her passion for civil rights and let them know the work they were doing is vital and changing the world. Twelve years after her death, my aunt would be proud of the award recipients like yourself who have impacted our world with their work. She would have wanted to talk to each of the AAJA members in attendance and encourage all of you to keep fighting the fight and not rest, for there is plenty of work still to be done.”At the AAJA dinner, I thanked the Ahn family for recognizing the importance to tell the story that’s in our blood. That’s the legacy of discrimination that we all share. It’s been the main disruptor of Asian American lives. From the Chinese Exclusion Act, to the passing of the Tydings-McDuffie Act in 1934, which changed Filipinos’ status from American nationals to aliens, to the Japanese American incarceration during WWII, the earliest Asian American groups have all felt the sting of anti-Asian hate and discrimination.And even as Asian American journalists, we know it first hand from our job experiences. But it’s also in our DNA to fight back. Wong Kim Ark sure did. And so did Dr. Suzanne Ahn.

Emil Guillermo is an independent journalist/commentator.
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