He Famously Fought For His U.S. Citizenship. Where Are His Descendants Now? NPR's Robert Siegel talks with Sandra Wong, the great granddaughter of Wong Kim Ark. Ark's Supreme Court case in 1898 interpreted the Fourteenth Amendment to safeguard birthright citizenship for children of immigrants, regardless of their parents' citizenship.

He Famously Fought For His U.S. Citizenship. Where Are His Descendants Now?

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A few weeks ago, when the principle of birthright citizenship was under attack, I read about Wong Kim Ark and 1898 U.S. Supreme Court decision that bears his name, United States v. Wong Kim Ark. Wong Kim Ark was born in California in 1873 to parents who were Chinese subjects. In his 20s, after a temporary visit to China, he sailed back to San Francisco. The Chinese Exclusion Act had since been passed, barring all Chinese immigration to the U.S., but Wong Kim Ark protested that he was born here, and the Supreme Court ultimately decided that, under the 14th Amendment, he was in fact a citizen by birth.

Millions of people born here since owe their citizenship in part to Wong Kim Ark, and I was curious to hear what became of his descendants. So we've invited Sandra Wong, who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, to join us. She's one of his great-granddaughters.

Welcome to the program.

SANDRA WONG: Thank you.

SIEGEL: And, you know, I was half-expecting to hear that your great-grandfather's famous brush with U.S. constitutional law was the stuff of family stories and memories handed down from generation to generation. That's not the case.

WONG: This is something that is quite new to me which I only found out about in 2011, when my father passed away.

SIEGEL: And at that time, you learned that, indeed, his grandfather had been this person who brought a famous case.

WONG: Yes. There was a picture board of my father and pictures of him when he was young and old and a newspaper clipping. So my niece was part of the newspaper article so I emailed her and I asked her about what was this article about, and she said, yes, it's all on the Internet.

SIEGEL: I've since read that, after his victory in court, your great-grandfather still experienced discrimination in the U.S., and he actually returned to China, where he died.

WONG: Based on what I've looked at, even after he won the Supreme Court case, he would leave the country, and he would come back, and he would, you know, have to provide these sworn documents showing he was Wong Kim Ark, a citizen who was born here.

SIEGEL: I want to get to your story, which becomes a real all-American story here (laughter). On your father's side, your great-grandparents were Chinese, but on your mother's side, they're Japanese-American.

WONG: Correct, yes.

SIEGEL: And your mother - your mother's family had its brush with U.S. Constitution.

WONG: Right. You know, it's interesting because, during the Chinese exclusion period, the focus was kind of on the Chinese, and then after, during World War II, the focus shifted to the Japanese. And my mom was a Japanese-American and was interned during the war.

SIEGEL: The story of your mother's detention, was that part of your upbringing?

WONG: I knew that she was in camps, but she didn't have so many stories about it. She was a teenager at the time, and she didn't talk about it with, like, you know, this was a horrible experience that I went through.

SIEGEL: Being from a family that has figured (laughter), or for whom questions of citizenship have figured so powerfully, I was wondering if you could tell the story of your children and their citizenship and where and how they were born.

WONG: Well, my children were born abroad in Europe. At the time, I had been living abroad with my husband, and we had our children there. And from Europe, I applied for U.S. citizenship for them so they could have dual citizenship.

SIEGEL: Was that complicated?

WONG: No, it was just paperwork. It was looking up the directions to find out what we needed to do to apply, and making an appointment, and going down there and getting our pictures and documents in order.

SIEGEL: As the mother of some really all-American kids, are you going to tell them the story of their great-great-grandfather and the court case that he was part of?

WONG: I most definitely will, yes. Unlike my family (laughter), who didn't pass the information on, I think it's important. Parents want their children to know their cultural roots, how important that is.

SIEGEL: Sandra Wong thank you very much for talking with us.

WONG: Thank you.

SIEGEL: We were talking about Sandra Wong's great-grandfather, Wong Kim Ark, whose case established the right to birthright citizenship.

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