Guest Blog

Who can belong in America? Understanding Citizenship for Asian Americans and Asian Immigrants

U.S. Immigration Station, Angel Island, San Francisco Bay. Dormitory: From Photographs from the Hart Hyatt North papers: Angel Island

CONTENT WARNING: Xenophobia, Anti-Asian Racism

This blog post was written on the ancestral lands of the Indigenous peoples of the Powhatan Confederation, a paramount chiefdom of about thirty Algonquian-speaking groups. To learn more information about the Powhatan visit: National Park Service’s Chronology of Powhatan Indian Activity, Virginia Indian Digital Archive, and Encyclopedia Virginia. To learn what land you reside on, visit Native Land Digital.

The question of the viability of a multi-racial democracy lay at the heart of the American Civil War. The outcome of the war, as expressed in the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, established the principle of birthright citizenship. Yet Americans continued to struggle with and compromise on the principles of who can belong. The 14th Amendment recognized as citizens those persons native-born and naturalized, and the 15th Amendment specifically linked voting rights as a privilege of citizenship.

In practice however, women were not recognized as citizens and were denied the right to vote, while the question of who was a citizen was much more complex than it seemed for Asian immigrants, Asian Americans, and Pacific Islanders. Understanding citizenship for Asians and Pacific Islanders requires close attention to exclusionary laws and practices, and to Supreme Court decisions that defined who had a right to “belong” as an American. The rights of citizenship for Asian immigrants, Asian Americans, and Pacific Islanders were severely limited until 1952, when Japanese and Korean immigrants were the last Asians to receive naturalization rights. 

The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act was the country’s first immigration law that singled out an immigrant group for large-scale exclusion based on race. It suspended immigration of Chinese “skilled and unskilled laborers and Chinese employed in mining” for ten years, and explicitly barred all Chinese people from becoming United States citizens.1 Subsequent extensions increasingly restricted Chinese immigration. In 1889, the Supreme Court unanimously upheld the constitutionality of the Chinese Exclusion Act in the case Chae Chan Ping v United States. In 1902, the Geary Act made the ban on Chinese immigration and naturalization permanent. The Chinese Exclusion Act remained in effect until the Magnuson Act of 1943.

Identification Photograph of Wong Kim Ark on affidavit “In the Matter of Wong Kim Ark, Native Born Citizen of the United States.” (National Archives)

Wong Kim Ark, a native-born American, visited China in 1894 but was denied reentry to the United States by U.S. collector of customs John H. Wise.2 The government petitioned the court to deny Wong Kim Ark the right to land and Wong Kim Ark appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. Wong’s case hinged on the question of how the United States determined citizenship — by jus soli (by soil) or by jus sanguinis (by blood).3 In March 1898, the Supreme Court confirmed that all persons born in the United States, regardless of race, were native-born citizens and entitled to all rights of citizenship, including the right to vote. Because of the Wong Kim Ark decision, Japanese American citizens who were later incarcerated during World War II were allowed to vote in the 1944 presidential election, though “between racially motivated interventions and inadequate voter education, this right was only nominally intact.”4 Disenfranchisement efforts practiced by state and local levels largely suppressed voting by Asian immigrants and Asian Americans.5 

While the Wong Kim Ark decision was intended to protect the rights of citizenship to those born in America, Asian immigrants continued to face challenges when applying for naturalization. Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans were the targets of discriminatory laws at the federal and state levels that restricted Japanese immigrants and prohibited naturalized citizenship.6 In the 1922 Supreme Court case Ozawa v. United States, Japanese immigrant Takao Ozawa challenged the United States’ ban on naturalized citizenship for Japanese immigrants.

Born in Japan in 1875, Ozawa emigrated to the United States as a student in 1894 and attended the University of California for three years before moving to Hawai’i to raise a family. He was fluent in English, was a practicing Christian, and worked for an American company.7 On October 14, 1914, Ozawa’s application for citizenship was denied; he challenged the ruling in the U.S. District Court and again was denied despite the court finding that he “was ‘in every way eminently qualified under the statute to become an American citizen’ except for his race.” The Supreme Court rejected Ozawa’s arguments to become a naturalized citizen and ruled “that white was synonymous with Caucasian.”8 The court stated that because Japanese immigrants were not Caucasian, they could not be white. Thus Ozawa and other Japanese immigrants were denied the right to become citizens.

Photograph of Bhagat Singh Thind in his U.S. Army Uniform, from 1918. Thind enlisted in the U.S. Army, and trained at Camp Lewis, Washington.

In 1923, the Supreme Court complicated its 1922 ruling in Ozawa. In 1923, a Punjabi man, Bhagat Singh Thind, sued when officials began to denaturalize the small numbers of South Asian immigrants and naturalized citizens on the grounds that they were not white.9

Thind was a naturalized citizen who first entered the United States in 1913 and served in the U.S. armed forces during World War I. With the Ozawa case in mind, Thind argued that science had classified South Asians as Caucasians. He claimed that he was a descendent of the Aryans of India and belonged to the Caucasian race, and was thus “white” within the strictures of the U.S. laws.10 A lower district court agreed with Thind in 1920 and granted him naturalization, but that decision was appealed to the Supreme Court which ruled against Thind. Thind and other South Asians who had been naturalized citizens, were all unceremoniously denaturalized. It was not until 1946, when the Luce-Celler Act amended the Immigration Act of 1917 and allowed “natives of India” to apply for admission to the United States, that many Indian immigrants could become citizens.11

Of note also was the Tydings-McDuffie Act (officially known as the Philippine Independence Act), signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on March 24, 1934. This act granted the Philippines commonwealth status and a promise of independence after ten years but changed the status of Filipinos from U.S. “nationals” to “aliens.”12 National citizens became deportable aliens under the provisions of the 1924 Immigration Act, which had established strict immigration exclusions and quotas based on racial and national origins; “The new policy of treating Filipinos as aliens rather than nationals worked in concert with the U.S. government’s new use of repatriation, or removal, of undesirable immigrants in the country, as another method of international immigration control. The Filipino Repatriation Act of July 10, 1935, stated that any Filipino born in the Philippines and living in the United States could apply for the ‘benefits’ of repatriation to the Philippines. The U.S. would pay for all expenses, but there was one catch: any repatriate would be barred from entering the United States ever again.” 

These cases are but a few of many where Asian immigrants and Asian Americans fought for their right to become naturalized citizens and gain the right to vote. It was not until 1952, when the United States passed the Immigration and Nationality Act (also known as the McCarran Walter Act) that race was abolished as a criterion for naturalized citizenship (which had dated back to the 1790 Naturalization Act).

While the importance of the 14th Amendment cannot be overlooked, it is also necessary to note “racial definitions of what people cannot participate fully in its republic as citizens, who should therefore be restricted from entry, and the rationales for marking and maintaining such differential statuses.”13 And as historian Madeline Y. Hsu elaborates,“the emergence of Asian exclusion illuminates America’s continuing ambivalence about the meaning of constitutional assertions of equality, specifically the priorities and criteria we should apply in determining whom and how many others we should admit and welcome to become fellow citizens.”14 

Emma Ito, Education & Program Specialist, The Library of Virginia

Explore more on the legacy of the Civil War and voting rights through Reconstruction and the 20th century at ACWM’s digital exhibit “Contested Franchise: The 15th Amendment and the Right to Vote in America.”


1 “An act to execute certain treaty stipulations relating to Chinese,” 22 Stat. 58, Sect. 1, 14, 15, approved May 6, 1882.

2 Erika Lee, The Making of Asian America (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2015), 84.

3 Erika Lee, The Making of Asian America (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2015), 84.

4 Natasha Varner, “Densho Blog: Japanese Americans Incarcerated During WWII Could Still Voet, Kind of,” Densho.org, October 13, 2016, https://densho.org/luxury-voting-world-war-ii-concentration-camps-today/.

5 Historian Erika Lee notes, “citizenship status offered little protection from discrimination. In 1913 and 1923, politicians introduced bills in Congress designed to disfranchise citizens of Chinese ancestry. The Immigration Act of 1924 explicitly excluded ‘aliens ineligible to citizenship,’ a reference to all Asians, and the 1922 Cable Act revoked the citizenship of women who married ‘aliens ineligible for citizenship.’ The main victims of this law were Asian American women who married Asian male immigrants. Once a woman lost her citizenship, her rights to own property, vote, and travel freely were also revoked. This law would not be changed until 1931.” Erika Lee, The Making of Asian America (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2015), 87.

6 Prior to 1920, there were a number of Anti-Asian and Anti-Japanese laws put in place. A few of note include the Gentleman’s Agreement of 1907-1908, which was intended to exclude Japanese immigrants from the United States (this however did allow Japanese laborers already in the US to bring their wives, children, and parents), Executive Order 589 in 1908, which prohibited continued immigration of Japanese immigrants who held passports from Hawai’i, Mexico, or Canada, and the California land laws in 1913 and 1920, which prohibited Asian immigrants from owning land, barred them from leasing lands for more than three years in a row, and banned them from holding land in guardianship for citizen children. Philip Q. Yang, Asian Immigration to the United States (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2011), 74-76.

7 Erika Lee, The Making of Asian America (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2015), 120. To learn more about the court case, visit https://encyclopedia.densho.org/Ozawa_v._United_States

8 Gary Y. Okihiro, American History Unbound: Asians and Pacific Islanders (Oakland: University of California Press, 2015), 286.

9 Erika Lee, The Making of Asian America (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2015), 172.

10 Historian Gary Y. Okihiro wrote; “The legal context from which the U.S. v. Bhagat Singh Thind case arose was the tangled precedents of Armenians classified as Asians and later in 1909, as whites, and Syrians considered whites in 1909, 1910, and 1915 but nonwhites in 1913 and 1914. The 1909 ruling In re Najour, by a federal court in Georgia, involved the Syrian Costa George Najour. According to the judge’s ruling, the term free white person, the criterion for naturalization eligibility of the 1790 Naturalization Act, referred to race, not skin color. Race, he ruled, was a scientific concept: since Syrians belonged to the Caucasian race, they were white.” Gary Y. Okihiro, American History Unbound: Asians and Pacific Islanders (Oakland: University of California Press, 2015), 285.

11 Erika Lee, The Making of Asian America (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2015), 173.

12 Erika Lee, The Making of Asian America (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2015), 188.

13 Madeline Y. Hsu, The Good Immigrants (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015), 7.

14 Madeline Y. Hsu, The Good Immigrants (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015), 8.