Wonder Woman: Illegal Immigrant

A reader sent in a link to this Wonder Woman panel, asking “All joking aside, how illegal is this?”

The short answer is, unsurprisingly, “pretty illegal.”  The longer answer is “but maybe not as illegal as you might think.”  Although the linked post shows an excerpt from DC Special Series #19: Secret Origins of Super-Heroes (Fall 1979), the same basic story was first printed in Sensation Comics #1 (January 1942).

Under modern law, even though both Dianas Prince agreed to the transaction, it would still be identity theft.  The state in which this is occurred isn’t wasn’t clear to me*, but New York’s statute is typical:

A person is guilty of identity theft in the third degree when he or she knowingly and with intent to defraud assumes the identity of another person by presenting himself or herself as that other person, or by acting as that other person or by using personal identifying information of that other person, and thereby:
1. obtains goods, money, property or services

N.Y. Penal Code § 190.78.  Assuming Wonder Woman went on to make bank transactions, collect a paycheck, etc using the other Diana Prince’s identity, that’s sufficient.

However, the good news for Wonder Woman is that identity theft laws don’t go back very far.  New York’s was enacted in 2002, and the federal identity theft law was enacted in 1998.  An admittedly not-particularly-exhaustive search didn’t turn up any identity theft laws in force in 1979, much less 1942.

The bad news is that the relevant parts of 18 USC § 1546(a) were in force in 1979, making it a federal crime to:

sell[] or otherwise dispose[] of…such visa, permit, or other document [prescribed by statute or regulation as evidence of authorized stay or employment in the United States], to any person not authorized by law to receive such document

As the purchaser, 1979 Wonder Woman would be liable for the same crime as a co-conspirator or solicitor.  But 1942 Wonder Woman escapes that fate, since the original version of that law only goes back to 1948.  A similar story applies to 26 USC § 7206 (fraud and false statements, like on a tax return) and 18 U.S. Code § 371 (conspiracy to defraud the US).

However, even if there wasn’t a federal crime that could be pinned on Wonder Woman for buying someone’s identity in 1942 (and I’m not saying there definitely wasn’t), the state she was in would have had fraud and conspiracy laws that would have applied in a case like this.  But that would be small potatoes compared to the modern penalties for the same act.

* Somewhere outside of Washington, DC apparently.  Very likely in Washington, DC itself (thanks to TerryC for the correction!).  I (still) defend my use of New York as an example on the grounds of laziness.

20 responses to “Wonder Woman: Illegal Immigrant

  1. Thanks for the shoutout, James! 🙂

    To be honest, I’m actually more concerned with Wonder Woman’s experience as a trained nurse. She may have invented the Purple Healing Ray, but I somehow doubt that Paradise Island and the U.S. requirements for being a trained nurse are in any way similar.

    • That’s a good point. The legal regulation of the nursing profession was well established by 1942.

      • James Pollock

        Was registration mandatory, or just preferred? She’s claiming to be trained… but not registered.

      • That being the case, could Wonder Woman be charged for practicing nursing without a license or degree?

      • James Pollock

        Depends on the state she’s actually in, of course.

        I found a listing of people who’ve been found guilty of nursing without a license in CA (yes, I’m fairly certain that Wonder Woman is NOT practicing in California, but that was the first one I found with all this information, and it’s late, and I took the first Google results that were reasonably on point.)


        The offenses are “unlicensed practice”, “practicing on a revoked license”, and “practicing on a surrendered license”.

        In almost all the cases, the punishment is citation and fine.

        There is another possible wrinkle… she is the emissary of a foreign sovereign. Presumably, if she were to be discovered to be not actually Diana Prince, she would not need to continue to keep her true identity secret. She’s in the country without having been inspected at the border, so she could be deported… but might be sent back with diplomatic immunity, if we’d accept her back as the open emissary of Paradise Island. Or, Wonder Woman might be accepted as such an emissary FIRST, and then reveal her secret identity, after gaining immunity.

  2. As I read the stories, WW is buying hospital credentials, not government-issued ID. This means she’s guilty of trespassing on the hospital’s property (every time she uses Diana Prince’s credentials to go into some part of the hospital that she’s authorized to go, but WW isn’t.) It’s hard to make out a case for fraud… unless she cashes a paycheck earned by Diana Prince before she left, she isn’t making a financial gain.

    I’m not even sure there’s a clear case of identity theft, again because there’s no motive for financial or other gain. I looked up my own state’s identity theft statute, and I’d say it applies (because it includes intent to defraud or to deceive for the intent element.) But it’s not so clear a case that I’m sure a prosecutor would pursue it if the the hospital wasn’t pushing for it.

    (I’m assuming that identity theft statutes aren’t intended to criminalize costume parties, or Halloween, or people who go to conventions that feature cosplay, and therefore the intent prong of identity-theft criminal statutes are written to avoid catching people who dress up like other people but don’t try to steal anything. I did not research this.)

  3. Good post but shouldn’t the title be something like “Wonder Woman: Identity Thief?”

    • A fair question, but I liked the contrasting alliteration. I’ll defend the use of the admittedly loaded term ‘illegal immigrant’ instead of ‘undocumented immigrant’ on the basis that she’s not undocumented, but rather illegally documented by her own design.

  4. I certainly would expect that being that Steve Trevor is a member of the military it would almost certainly be the case that the hospital he was in would be Walter Reed General Hospital, which is actually located in Washington D.C., so D.C. or federal law.

  5. James Scribner

    How can it not be illegal for a foreign national using a false identity to be in the U.S. military often working with classified information requiring a background security check to be involved in counter-intelligence work against enemy spy rings during wartime and passing information about her missions to the head of a foreign government she in fact holding an official position in? Any person employed by the U.S. government in the military discovered to be in the situation Wonder Woman is in would doubtlessly be charged with espionage, but obviously her service record would likely get her a Presidential pardon.

    • Oh, there are plenty of other laws that Wonder Woman and virtually every other superhero routinely break. This post only deals with the most direct and obvious legal issues related to her immigration status.

  6. chornedsnorkack

    There were agents of foreign governments present in USA in 1942 behind US government’s back.
    What happened to members of German and Japanese military arriving in USA and presenting themselves as US civilians, when caught? I suppose they were defined as spies, rather than prisoners of war.

    Also, how do supposedly allied countries treat each other’s spies? Like, Soviet Union was US ally 1941-1945 – how did USA handle Soviet spies caught at that time?

  7. “Also, how do supposedly allied countries treat each other’s spies? Like, Soviet Union was US ally 1941-1945 – how did USA handle Soviet spies caught at that time?”

    Spies during not-wartime are all treated identically, regardless of who they work for… if they have diplomatic cover, they get expelled, if they’re uncovered, they get arrested, tried for espionage, and imprisoned before being deported.

    In wartime, the rules are different. It makes a difference which country they work for. For example, the Nazi saboteurs who snuck into New Jersey and Florida were executed, except for the ones that turned themselves in, who were imprisoned under life sentences before receiving executive clemency after the war.

  8. Wonder Woman and the Justice Society often met with the White House during the War, mainly for matters of domestic security. Superman being an illegal immigrant is one thing but probably minor in the scope of things.

    Did Wonder Woman ever register as a foreign agent? The law was passed in ’38. Would she have to register her false identity as well? And if not, I would imagine the penalties of getting caught would be severe. Assuming, of course, the G-men ever bother to try to arrest her.

    That reminds me- wouldn’t Hal Jordan and Jon Stewart get in serious trouble for joining the Guardians since both had served in the US Armed Forces? Of course, the feds might lop that charge onto Hal Jordan later, after they prosecute him for violating the Mann Act.
    “But officer! She looks 18 but she’s 200 on her home planet!”
    “Sure, buddy. Tell it to Chris Hansen.”

  9. So, in the modern version, Wonder Woman ascribes this helpful resemblance to divine action by Aphrodite. What if she’s right — and that furthermore, the “nurse” Diana Prince is actually Aphrodite, who has manufactured these credentials? Does it still count toward conspiracy if one “co-conspirator” is a divinity, who therefore may not count as a “person” subject to the jurisdiction of US law?

    • Whether or not Aphrodite counts as a legal person raises the question of whether Wonder Woman, Superman, or any non-human characters ever counted as a “person” in the first place. If they do, then I suppose Aphrodite could as well- I mean, good luck trying to enforce human laws on her, but nonetheless…

      • James Pollock

        Superman presents the interesting challenge that if he were NOT committed to truth, justice, and the American Way, there’s not a lot the government(s) could do about it. Wonder Woman is depicted as not quite so invulnerable. Either one, however, likely gets a pass on “personhood” because they look like, well, people. (Specifically, like WHITE people… Take that, Chief Justice Taney!) WE know they are NOT “people” because WE are privy to their secret origins but there is nothing to suggest that they are not “people” to someone who is not aware that Superman is a Kryptonian and Wonder Woman is an Amazon. Yes, they have superpowers, but so do a lot of people*, including some who have secret identities, and some who do not, so that is unlikely to come up.

        On the other hand, some of the other DC superheroes will potentially have a harder time with this issue… Martian Manhunter (in his normal form), Hawkman, possibly Starfire but probably not, possibly Raven but probably not, and definitely Deadman… might have trouble being recognized as a “person” in a court of law.

        The precedents are, of course, to be found in Dred Scot (on whether dark-skinned people are “people”), and the PETA cases on behalf of cetaceans (at present, they are NOT people.)

        In fiction, the theme is explored quite thoroughly in the classic SF novel, “Little Fuzzy”, in which the (hypothetical) test of “personhood” is given as “talk and build a fire”. Under this test, nearly all of the DC superheroes are “people”, except possibly Aquaman (depending on whether he’s home, or on the surface, when tested) and Deadman.

        * in the DC universe(s), anyways

      • It is common knowledge in the DC universe that Superman is from Krypton and Wonder Woman is an Amazonian.

        Superman has given interviews to the press explaining his origins; criminals, the government and the general public all know he is vulnerable to kryptonite and that kryptonite is remnants of his exploded home planet; Earth has been attacked on multiple occasions by Kryptonian super villains who were completely open about who and what they were, etc.

        Wonder Woman is often depicted as an outright ambassador of Themyscira; she too has been open about her origins to the public; many other Amazonians have cropped up as allies or as villains, and so on.

        So yeah, it’s pretty well known that they are not just superhuman people.

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