by Matt Hershberger
With Man of Steel released this summer just as the immigration reform debate in the United States was getting started, it was probably inevitable that someone with a platform was going to draw the connection that Superman’s immigration status is somewhat in limbo.
Is Superman Undocumented?
The accuracy of this statement – that Superman is a DREAMer or an undocumented immigrant – has been brought into question by both nerds and restrictionists on Twitter, and while the impulse might be to say, “Oh my God, please shut up,” it might be worth looking into.
It’s indisputable that Superman is an immigrant. Born Kal-El on the planet Krypton, his parents, Jor-El and Lara, upon learning of the planet’s impending explosion, put their infant son, Kal-El, into an escape rocket which then transported him safely to earth. The Superman canon then says that he landed on earth, was taken in by Jonathan and Martha Kent, a childless Midwestern couple, and raised as their son, Clark.
Whether or not he’s undocumented presents more of a dilemma, because canon in the superhero comics genre is a sketchy thing at best. Stories get rewritten, updated to reflect the times, or split off into totally different universes. In some versions, for example, the Kents stumbleupon little Kal-El and take him in as their own (without alerting the authorities), which, thanks to their remoteness out in the Midwest, is believable to their neighbors. In other versions, they find Kal-El, take him to an orphanage, and then go through the process of legally adopting him. In the former scenario, he’s obviously undocumented, as the records created for him would obviously be falsified, and thus, would be fraudulent. In the latter scenario, he is documented, and is simply an adoptee.
The legality of his status also depends on the time of his arrival and the current laws at the time. There have been times in U.S. history where immigration has basically been open, and other times where it has been open for people of certain nationalities, while other nationalities have been discriminated against. If he arrived after the 1924 quotas on Asian and other non-white countries were established, he might not have a problem – Superman is in most iterations a white man (though recently, DC Comics made Superman black in one universe). However, quotas were also established against Eastern and Southern Europeans in the Immigration Act of 1924. What would Krypton qualify as? Superman is – despite his kinda creepy übermensch mythology – not ever portrayed as an Aryan looking man. He’s a burly guy with dark hair, and could easily pass as having Latin/Southern European heritage.
He may also be able to claim refugee/asylum status. Under current law (and assuming we’re talking about a rebooted Superman who arrived after the 1951 Refugee Convention & Protocol was signed by the U.S. in 1968), he would qualify for relief as an Unaccompanied Refugee Minor, but this would make him ineligible for adoption under the Hague Convention, so I’m guessing this isn’t the route the Kents would take. The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) states that asylum applicants must demonstrate fear of persecution due to race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion, and must be of special humanitarian concern to the United States. Theoretically, this would probably apply to him, because he’s certainly of special humanitarian concern to the United States, being its protector and symbolic figurehead. He would likely be able to demonstrate fear of return because a) his home planet isn’t there anymore, and b) General Zod is trying to hunt him down. But you must apply for asylum within one year of arrival in the United States, and, again, Kal-El was two when he got here.
Which, again is what this comes down to. The American immigration system is known for being particularly massive and confusing. Although the broad strokes of Superman’s story remain the same in all universes and iterations – a supremely talented individual traveling to a new country for a better life – the details, ultimately, are what will trip him up and get him a one-way ticket out of the U.S. and back to his country of origin.
Deporting superman would be an insanely expensive plane ticket. Which isn’t to say it’s inconceivable: a 2010 study by the Center for American Progress estimates that the cost of the deportation of all of America’s 11 million undocumented immigrants would be $200 billion, plus an additional $17 billion a year on border security just to maintain that enforcement-heavy system. A 2013 study from the Immigration Policy Center estimates that, on top of this, America would lose $551.6 billion in economic activity, as well as $2.8 million jobs.
Americans are clearly willing to throw a lot of money at getting rid of some of its most productive denizens, so let’s figure out what it would cost to get rid of Superman, shall we? First, we’d have to consider his detention. Immigration and Customs Enforcement estimates that the cost of detaining a single immigrant for a day is $119. For Superman, however, we can assume it would be much higher, because his cell would have to be made out of the fairly rare element of Kryptonite. I can’t find the cost of Kryptonite anywhere, but it’s been referred to as being “less expensive than radium,” which is $25,000 a gram. So let’s assume it’s $20,000 a gram, and you’d need, say, a conservative 1 kilogram to keep Superman fully incapacitated within his cell. That’s $20 million right there, on top of the $119 a day.
Second, we’d have to consider the cost of sending him home. The object we’ve created that has traveled the furthest from earth is the Voyager 1 spaceship, which is just now, 35 years after launch, entering interstellar space. That has cost $895 million, and has traveled approximately 15.6 billion miles from earth. Krypton, Neil deGrasse Tyson has estimated, is approximately 27.1 light years from earth, or, 159.3 trillion miles, so, by using the inadequate cost prediction of just multiplying the cost by the difference in distance, just sending Superman back to Krypton would be $9.12 trillion, or approximately two-thirds of our annual GDP.
Don’t even get me started on the cost of an effective anti-Superman border surge, to prevent future re-entries, the costs of the inevitable rise in crime in the city of Metropolis, and the potential costs of a sudden shift in the global power balance (as in the comic book Watchmen) that would result from Superman’s sudden absence.
In short, the answers to Superman’s legal status are dependent on a set of fairly arbitrary life circumstances and the bureaucratic labyrinth that is the U.S. immigration system. If he is undocumented, his detention and deportation would be crippling to the American economy. Even if in many universes Superman is technically “legal,” the parallels between his story and the story of the undocumented – from the arrival, to the contribution to the United States culture and economy, to the harm done in the event of forced removal – is just too good for advocates to pass up.
Matt Hershberger has an MSc in Human Rights from the London School of Economics, where he researched the American right-wing media’s treatment of the children of undocumented immigrants, and a BA in Journalism from Penn State University. He blogs about culture and politics at A Man Without a Country, and about travel at Matador Network. He currently works for the American Immigration Council in Washington, D.C.