Tuesday, January 19, 2021
Ann Loeb Bronfman Distinguished Professor of Law and Government Amanda Frost published an essay in The American Scholar titled "Bithright Citizens and Paper Sons." In it she reveals the true story of an unexpected archival find that puts a wrinkle in one of the landmark legal victories for Chinese Americans: U.S. v. Wong Kim Ark, in which the U.S. Supreme Court decided that the Fourteenth Amendment's provision of birthright citizenship extends to all persons born on U.S. soil, regardless of their parents' legal status.
After the U.S. Supreme Court declared that Wong Kim Ark was a U.S. born citizen despite his transnational life and his noncitizen parents, his children should have been automatically considered U.S. citizens. But the law did not immediately change their fortunes. When Wong Kim Ark's eldest son tried to enter the U.S. from China, he was initially held at Angel Island. Immigration inspectors declaired his paper fraudulent and denied him citizenship. A different son (Wong Yook Sue) met a similar fate on his attempt to enter, before this son appealed and got the decision reversed so that he could enter as a U.S. citizen.
But it turns out that Wong Yook Sue was a "paper son" of Wong Kim Ark. That is, according to the newly discovered and long overlooked documents from a Texas archive, he admitted during a Chinese confession program that he had falsely testified that he was biologically related to Wong Kim Ark and was instead a citizen of China. He was not a U.S. born citizen, notwithstanding Wong Kim Ark and the other Wong children's U.S. citizenship. Frost reflects on this unexpected wrinkle in a manner that highlights to complexity of history and even greater complexity of its lessons for the meaning of belonging in America.
From the perspective of a century later, the morality of paper sons and their citizen-fathers is complicated—just as complicated as the morality of unauthorized immigration today. Are paper sons and their fathers criminals, or are they the victims of a racist and inhumane system? Did they help or harm the United States? Does the United States regret the presence of a group of immigrants who mined the gold and built the transcontinental railroad at extraordinary speed and under harsh conditions? Or those, like Wong and his children, who took jobs that white Americans refused to do, laundering the clothes and cooking the meals to be enjoyed by the “real” citizens? In the words of Stanford professors Gordon H. Chang and Shelley Fisher Fishkin, Chinese immigrants and their children, both legal and illegal, in big ways and small, “helped build America.” One hundred years from now, when future historians scour the archives for records of the immigrants arriving today, they will surely say the same.
The story she tells in the article is one of many others from her new book, You Are Not American: Citizenship Stripping from Dred Scott to the Dreamers, which comes out this month.