Category Archives: immigration law

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.

Superman and Supergirl: Environmental Refugees

(This guest post was written by Kean Zimmermana recent graduate from Michigan State University College of Law.  This post is an in-depth exploration of Superman and Supergirl’s environmental refugee status touched on in a previous article. The analysis in this article has changed to reflect the Supergirl in the TV series and recent New Zealand Court decisions. That article can be viewed online at L&F Magazine.)


The writers and contributors who have posted on Law and the Multiverse, as well as other legal scholars, have taken the opportunity to note the various legal issues that superheroes and villains face when it comes to the intricate web that is immigration law.  Recent developments in the world have lead to an increase in refugees, especially refugees forced from their homes not just by people, but by the environment.  Kryptonians would likely be counted among the other environmental refugees.  Similarly the survivors of Krypton would also struggle with many of the same setbacks.

The United States has instituted laws addressing refugees since 1948.[1]  In 1948, the  United States government enacted the first law for admitting persons fleeing persecution.[2]  The law permitted 205,000 refugees to enter the United States over the course of two years.[3]  It was not until 1951 that the first steps were taken to recognize refugees on an international scale.[4]  In 1951, the United Nations put forth the 1951 Refugee Convention, which is the underpinning of most refugee law in the world.[5]  The Convention defines refugees, their rights, and what obligations states have to refugees across the globe.[6]  The same Convention states that individuals may seek asylum if they have a well founded fear of persecution on account of one of the five pre-approved grounds.[7]  Those are race, religion, ethnicity, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group.[8]  While most countries that have adopted the convention’s regulations to govern refugee law, those same laws have not been updated to keep pace with current trends.  Currently, there is a gap between what the law provides and what is needed.[9]  The widening gap is most certainly the case of what is occurring with environmental refugees.

A. Environmental Refugees

Environmental refugees are growing in number across the globe, but both domestic and international laws have yet to grow along with the refugees.  According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, an environmental refugees is “a person displaced owing to environmental causes, notably land loss and degradation, and natural disaster.”[10]  These refugees are also known as “displaced people” or “climate refugees.”[11]  Environmental refugees are not a new phenomena, yet in recent years there has been an increase in attention to climate refugees.  This is correlative to the changes in climate that have occurred in recent years.[12]

I. Superman and Supergirl’s Not so Super Problem

A. Superman: A True Illegal Alien

There is no question that Superman, or rather Clark Kent, is not from this planet.  In fact he embodies the term “illegal alien” in that he never properly migrated to this country, or at least did not do so through official channels.  His provenance can be forgiven given the fact that he was sent by his parents from the planet Krypton.[13]  The reasons for the planet’s demise have varied over the years.  This post, however, adopts the theory from the Man of Steel movie.  In the Man of Steel, Krypton’s resources were over-consumed to the point that the planet imploded on itself.[14]   Environmental disaster on a planetary scale obliterated Krypton in its entirety.[15]

As a baby, young Clark could not be expected to file his asylum petition on his own.  The Kents adopted Clark after finding him in their field.[16]  The two possible ways this would occur today would be if Clark had been legally adopted as an abandoned child, or if the Kents had somehow managed to obtain forged documentation for Clark.  However, Clark would still have to file his claim for asylum the year after he turned 18.[17]  Clark would have clearly exceeded this statutory limitation as there is no evidence he has ever applied for asylum.[18]  Typically the law requires asylum seekers to affirmatively apply for asylum within one year after entering the United States.[19]  Recently, in a Board of Immigration Appeals decision, the court stated that an applicant’s age can be taken into consideration when determining if they can be exempted from the one year filing rule.[20]  Since there is no evidence that Clark ever attempted to apply for asylum this may have no bearing whatsoever.

Somehow Superman has the ability to renounce his United States citizenship in Action Comics 900.[21]  Renouncing American citizenship is governed under  section 349(a)(5) of the Immigration and Nationality Act.[22]  The backlash after this comic book was released was so huge that publisher DC Comics backtracked a week later and announced the issue itself was standalone.[23]  Being a standalone issue meant no further issue would explore Superman’s discarding of his American citizenship.  At least in this respect, it can be assumed that he has United States citizenship.  There is a chance that Kent was granted citizenship under the foundling statute even though it is rarely used.[24]  Based on this law, because Kent’s parentage was unknown as he entered the United States under the age of five, and since he hid his secret well after the age of twenty-one, he could possibly have attained legitimate United States citizenship through the statute.[25]

There is little debate that Superman had to leave Krypton before its ultimate implosion.[26] While Superman has never formally been considered a refugee, he fits the basic understanding of an environmental refugee in that he literally has no planet to return to.  Since it is presumed from DC that he somehow has citizenship, he does not have to examine this question.[27]  The same cannot be said for his cousin Kara Zor-El, also known as Supergirl.

B. Supergirl’s Dilemma

While Superman might want to file for Supergirl’s entry into the country through legal channels, there is no “cousin” spot for admitting someone into the country as a family member (he could only seek to admit a parent, spouse, child, or sibling).[28]  The most logical option at that point would be Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).[29]  Supergirl’s biological age is only thirteen given that she was trapped in the Phantom Zone, a place where time moves slower than on Earth, after she left Krypton.[30]  However, her actual age is suggested to be much greater given that she was stuck in the Phantom Zone while Superman grew into a man (her age after arriving in the United States is an estimated thirty-seven years).[31]  The United States government might not consider her young enough to qualify for DACA based on the elevated age. Biologically she would have entered the country before turning sixteen, but she would have been alive for thirty-seven years.  As such, Superman would likely seek either asylum or withholding of removal for his cousin.

The problem then exists is that Supergirl cannot claim asylum based on the fact that her planet no longer exists.  Actual displacement based on loss of home due to an environmental disaster would seem to fall under the concept of an environmental refugee, but as of right now environmental refugees are not recognized under most international laws.  Environmental refugees do not appear to be eligible for asylum solely based on their status as an environmental refugee.  Most countries base their refugee law on the 1951 Refugee Convention.[32]  As previously mentioned, the Convention prescribes five grounds upon which an individual can receive asylum.  Those grounds are race, religion, nationality, political opinion, and a particular social group.[33]  Supergirl must also be suffering from some kind of “persecution” that is based on one of the five grounds.[34]

In this case Supergirl’s persecution is simply that she is unable to return to her home planet of Krypton.  She lacks the opportunity to avail herself of the Kryptonian government since it is non-existent.  She would seek admittance to the United States, but she does not fall into a persecutorial nexus based on any of the five grounds.  At this point, the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) would contemplate whether or not it could forcibly eject Supergirl from the United States.  To do so would mean extreme costs on the United States government as simply containing her would likely cost upwards of $20 million.[35]  Even if Supergirl were to be ejected from the country, she would have nowhere else to go.

C. Super and Stateless

In effect Supergirl is actually a stateless person.  As of now the United States has not signed on to any of the major international conventions which attempt to reduce the number of stateless persons.[36]  Currently, the United States is lacking a basic framework to deal with stateless people, so most of its efforts are merely stopgap measures.[37]  The absence of a framework often leaves stateless persons in a position of limbo for excessive periods of time, especially if they no longer have a country to return to or no country which will accept them.[38]  Supergirl would likely be in a similar position as Krypton no longer exists.  After a determination is made that she either cannot return, or that it is too expensive to deport her, the government would probably require Supergirl to make routine reports to the Department of Homeland Security.[39]  Although she might be able to receive a work permit, if she were to ever leave the borders of the United States, border patrol could then deny her readmission.[40]

As a last ditch effort, Supergirl might try to claim asylum on the basis of her membership in a particular social group.[41]  She could argue that her particular social group is that of a Kryptonian who survived the destruction of the planet of Krypton.  However, such a group has yet to be acknowledged by the United States government.  Even then the persecution would have to be a form of past persecution.  Different circuits within the United States recognize different grounds or acceptable forms of past persecution.  Thus far, none have accepted the idea of “loss of a home” as a viable form of past persecution.  In fact, there is no law stating that the loss of a country, let alone a planet, amounts to persecution.  One of the only individuals in the world to make such an argument thus far has had little success.

II. Tuvalu: An Island and its Implications for Immigrants

Ioane Teitiota is the first man in New Zealand to seek asylum under the label of environmental refugee.[42]  Teitiota has been living in New Zealand since 2007 after leaving his Tuvaluan home; he believes his home will become uninhabitable before too long.[43]  Tuvalu is a Polynesian island nation located in the Pacific Ocean.[44]  The island is located halfway between Australia and Hawaii.[45]  Although very unassuming, the island is predicted to be the first island to succumb to rising sea levels.[46]  In 2009, there were many trees swallowed by the rising salt water, but as of 2012 whole parts of the island were consumed.[47] The highest point of the country above sea level is only a few meters high.[48]  Before the island is swallowed by the sea there are many Tuvaluans who are concerned that encroaching salt water will prevent any type of agriculture from persisting on the island.[49]  To that end, many Tuvaluans have fled their country, but not all have succeeded in trying to relocate.

The Court of Appeals in New Zealand denied Mr. Teitiota’s  application for Asylum in 2014 stating that his case was “fundamentally misconceived” and that it would “stand the [UN refugee] convention on its head.”[50]  While Teitiota argued that he would be facing “passive persecution” as a result of his government being unable to “protect him from climate change’s effects,” the court remained unpersuaded.[51]  Ultimately, the court felt that Teitiota’s arguments were “novel,” but “unconvincing” as granting him asylum would simply open up opportunities for millions of people living in low-lying countries to seek the same kind of asylum.[52]  To avoid a flood gates situation the Court affirmed the lower court’s decision to deny Teitiota’s claim for asylum.  The Court’s decision meant that Mr. Teitiota, his wife, and his three children born in New Zealand would have to return to their native home of Tuvalu.[53]

It seemed strange then that a different family from Tuvalu was granted New Zealand residency only months later after making similar claims.[54]  The family’s petition was the first “successful application for residency on humanitarian grounds in which climate change had featured.”[55]  The Court claimed the second case was different since the family had strong ties to New Zealand.  Like Mr. Teitiota’s claim, the second family was denied initially for not meeting the standards of the refugee convention.[56]  However, the second family successfully won their subsequent appeal by basing their argument on humanitarian grounds.[57]  In the July 2014 decision, the Court found that returning the family back to Tuvalu would be “unjust and unduly harsh.”[58]  The largest difference between the two applicants is the second Tuvaluan family has three generations of relatives living in New Zealand, increasing their ties to the community.[59]  Supergirl may be able to raise a similar argument since she herself has ties to the United States in the form of her cousin Superman.  This would likely fail though since Superman himself is only one man, not three generations of familial ties.  Furthermore, the United States has done very little within its own borders to make immigration exceptions for environmental refugees from abroad.

III. What the United States is doing for Environmental Refugees

There is no official legal framework to address the problems environmental refugees face when they try to enter the United States.  The United States has taken some steps to acknowledge this unique group of refugees immigrating into the United States.  The Immigration Act of 1990 does address granting temporary protection status to such refugees.[60]  Temporary protection status is granted when:

There has been an earthquake, flood, drought, epidemic, or other environmental disaster in the state resulting in a substantial, but temporary, disruption of living conditions in the area affected’ and when ‘the foreign state is unable, temporarily, to handle adequately the return to the state of aliens who are nationals of the state.[61]
Temporary status only applies to individuals who are already inside the United States at the time of the disaster.[62]  The temporary status includes six months of protection and the ability to work, but it does not allow for the admission of the claimant’s spouse or family.[63]  Temporary protection status was granted to victims of Hurricane Mitch in 1998 and victims displaced by the Montserrat volcano explosion in 1997.[64]  However, the granting of temporary protection status is discretionary.[65]  In addition to only protecting those who were environmentally displaced while they were present in the United States, as of 2014 only citizens of Haiti (earthquake), Honduras (hurricane Mitch), Nicaragua (hurricane Mitch), and El Salvador (earthquakes) were able to get temporary protected status for environmental events. [66]  There is no legal protection in the United States that creates a path to permanent status for environmental refugees.  As a country, the United States’ ability to protect those persons displaced by climate change is limited since its laws do not offer any substantive relief to those fleeing environmental disasters or rising sea levels outside of the United States.  In this lack of framework, the United States is consistent with many other international states who do not have legal frameworks to address the problems faced by environmental refugees.


In the end Supergirl will face the same fate as millions across the globe.  Without an adequate legal framework to deal with the surge in environmental refugees that is predicted to come in the next few decades, stopgap measures will be used to treat the environmental refugee crisis on too small a scale.  Excessive stopgap measures will lead to a bottleneck in the immigration system.  Supergirl will likely not be deported because of the sheer cost that would entail, and the fact that there is likely no Kryptonian agreement with any other country that would allow her to reside there.  In all likelihood, she will stay in the United States, but will not be able to ever qualify for United States citizenship since she falls within a grey area of the law.  This might not be as much of a problem, but if she were to ever save anyone outside of the United State’s borders then the United States could deny her readmission to the country. This would drastically limit the range of her allowable Superhero activities.


[1] History of U.S. Immigration Laws, Federation for American Immigration Reform,

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, 189 U.N.T.S. 137 (done at Geneva, 28 July 1951), as amended by the Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, 606 U.N.T.S. 267, T.I.A.S. No. 6577, 19 U.S.T. 6223, done at New York, 31 Jan. 1967.

[5] The 1951 Refugee Convention,

[6] 1951 Refugee Convention, supra note 5.

[7] Id.

[8] Id.

[9] Climate Refugees, Michael P. Nash, LA Think Tank,

[10] Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development,

[11] National geographic, Climate Refugee, available at , last visited Apr. 20, 2015.

[12] Climate Refugees, supra note 9.

[13] Man of Steel, Zack Snyder, Warner Bros., 2014.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.  (Adopt is likely a tentative term,  seeing as the Kents probably did not file the appropriate adoption paperwork as they did not want to risk the safety of their young child).

[17] INA §208(a)(2)(B).

[18] Id.

[19] INA §208(a)(2)(B).

[20] BIA Decision, Mar. 29, 2013,,

[21] Paul Cornell, Action Comics 900, (DC Comics, 2011).

[22] INA §349(a)(5).

[23] DC Backtracks Superman Renouncing His Citizenship, May 5, 2011, available at, last visited Apr. 18, 2015.

[24] Ryan Davidson, Superheroes and Immigration Status, Law and the Multiverse, Dec. 22, 2010, available at, last visited Apr. 20, 2015.  (James Daily Commentary).

[25] Id.

[26] Man of Steel, supra note 13.

[27] Paul Cornell, supra note 21.

[28] Bobbie Masters, Frequently Asked Questions About Immigration, Masters Law Firm, P.C., available at

[29] USCIS, Consideration of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals

[30] Supergirl, Warner Bros. Television (2015)

[31] Id.

[32] 1951 Refugee Convention, supra note 5.

[33] Id.

[34] Id.

[35] Matt Hershberger, Is Superman Undocumented?,

[36] See Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons, opened for signature Sept. 28, 1954, 360 U.N.T.S. 117 (entered into force June 6, 1960 ) ; see also Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, opened for signature Aug. 30, 1961, 989 U.N.T.S. 175 (entered into force Dec. 13, 1975)

[37] Mikhail Sebastien, Stateless in the United States,

[38] Id.

[39] Id.

[40] Id.

[41] 1951 Refugee Convention, supra note 5.

[42] Kathy Marks, World’s first ‘climate change refugee’ has appeal rejected as New Zealand rules Ioane Teitiota must return to South Pacific island nation of Kiribati,

[43] Id.

[44] Climate Refugees, supra note 9.

[45] Id.

[46] Id.

[47] Id.

[48] Id.

[49] Id.

[50] Marks, supra note 42.

[51] Id.

[52] Id.

[53] Id.

[54] Amy Maas, Tuvalu Climate Change Family Win NZ Residency Appeal, The New Zealand Herald,

[55] Id.

[56] Id.

[57] Id.

[58] Id.

[59] Maas, supra note 54.

[60] An EU Strategy on Adaptation to Climate Change, Commission Staff Working Document, European Union (2013), 17 (internal quotation marks omitted).

[61] Id.

[62] Id.

[63] Id.

[64] Strategy on Adaptation, supra note 60.

[65] Id.

[66] Madeline Messic & Claire Nergeron, Temporary Protected Status in the United States: A Grant of Humanitarian Relief that is Less Than Permanent,

Is Thor an illegal immigrant?

Superman’s immigration status has been considered here before, and recently I received a link (thanks, Rick!) to this great piece: Is The Avengers’ Thor an Illegal Alien?, written by Jake Lipman, an immigration attorney with Lipman & Wolf, LLP.  Check it out!

She-Hulk #3

She-Hulk #3 picks right up where issue #2 left off, introducing Jennifer Walters’s second client: Kristoff Vernard, son of Victor von Doom.  Kristoff is seeking political asylum in the United States, and while Walters was his fifteenth choice to represent him, she agrees to take him on as a client.  This issue mentions a lot of details relating to the law of asylum, so I’m going to take a stab at explaining those.  And once again it wouldn’t be She-Hulk without an ethically questionable decision or two!

I. Political Asylum

Walters explains that obtaining asylum requires proving that the asylum seeker has a “well-founded fear of persecution” in their country of origin and that living in the United States is the only way to get away from it.  This is basically accurate.

The well-founded fear of persecution standard is derived from the standard for refugees, 8 U.S.C. § 1101(a)(42):

The term “refugee” means (A) any person who is outside any country of such person’s nationality or, in the case of a person having no nationality, is outside any country in which such person last habitually resided, and who is unable or unwilling to return to, and is unable or unwilling to avail himself or herself of the protection of, that country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion

The “unable or unwilling to return” part is presumably what Walters meant by “living in the United States is the only way to get away from it.”

Of course, that’s merely the standard for refugee status.  Claiming asylum is a little more detailed, requiring four elements described by the Board of Immigration Appeals:

(1) the alien possesses a belief or characteristic a persecutor seeks to overcome in others by means of punishment of some sort; (2) the persecutor is already aware, or could easily become aware, that the alien possesses this belief or characteristic; (3) the persecutor has the capability of punishing the alien; and (4) the persecutor has the inclination to punish the alien.

Matter of Mogharrabi, 19 I. & N. Dec. 439, 446 (1987).  Vernard would seem to meet these four factors, and presumably his unwillingness to serve the Latverian government would count as a political opinion.

The next major thing Walters asks about is how long Vernard has been in the US.  It turns out he has been in the US for exactly one year, which sends Walters racing to get to the courthouse.  Again this is correct.  There is a hard one year limit on asylum claims. 8 U.S.C. § 1158(a)(2)(B).

Walters exaggerates a little when she says there isn’t a judge in the world that will stay past five.  There are often judges or at least magistrates on call for late-night search warrants and other time-sensitive court business, but this doesn’t fall under any of those circumstances.

When Walters and Vernard finally make it to the court, the judge asks whether there is an I-589 on file or an EOIR-28.  The first is an application for asylum.  The second is a notice of entry of appearance as an attorney, which would need to be filed before Walters could represent Vernard before the New York City Immigration Court, which is indeed located at 26 Federal Plaza as described in the first page of the comic.

Curiously (to me), Walters argues that Vernard is eligible for asylum because he is being persecuted because of membership in a particular social class, namely the Latverian royal family.  It is true that a family can qualify as a particular social class.  Gebremichael v. I.N.S., 10 F.3d 28 (1st Cir. 1993).  But Vernard isn’t being persecuted simply because he’s a member of the Latverian royal family; indeed his membership in the royal family affords him numerous privileges and protections.  Rather, it is his refusal to follow the government’s policy of succession that is the source of the fear of persecution.  If, for example, Vernard were a member of the royal family but not heir to the throne he wouldn’t have a well-founded fear of persecution.  But I won’t quibble about that too much: Vernard still had a good claim based on political opinions, and membership in the royal family is a little easier to explain.

II. The Duty of Confidentiality and the Attorney-Client Privilege

Once again it wouldn’t be She-Hulk without a casual ethical lapse.  Rather than conduct Vernard’s intake interview at her office, Walters takes him to a coffee shop, where they discuss the case in the crowded shop and outside with several people nearby.  Nothing they discuss is an important secret (it’s not as if they’re discussing where he hid the body or something), but it is nonetheless a potential violation of the duty of confidentiality.

Attorneys owe a duty of confidentiality to their clients.  In New York this duty is described by Rule 1.6:

(a) A lawyer shall not knowingly reveal confidential information, as defined in this Rule …

“Confidential information” consists of information gained during or relating to the representation of a client, whatever its source, that is (a) protected by the attorney-client privilege

But information cannot be protected by the privilege if the lawyer discusses confidential information with the client in a non-confidential setting.  This can include communicating in the presence of third parties.  See, e.g., People v. Harris, 57 N.Y.2d 335 (1982) (speaking to a lawyer in the presence of a police officer and another person); Bower v. Weisman, 669 F.Supp. 602 (S.D.N.Y. 1987) (talking in an elevator).  If the communication is never really confidential then the privilege doesn’t exist.

Now, there’s no ethical problem if the client voluntarily disregards confidentiality, but in this case Walters was the one to (firmly) request conducting the interview in public.  Vernard may have reasonably believed that the conversation would be protected, since his (prospective) attorney was the one to suggest the idea.

Again, we don’t see Walters or Vernard discuss anything terribly secret or damaging in public, but it’s a bad practice to discuss a case with a client in public.

Citizenship and Jurisdiction in Ame-Comi Girls

Lately I’ve been working through our backlog of mailbag questions.  Today’s post comes from this email from Jesse, who offers this background:

In issue six of [Ame-Comi Girls] after having saved the world from Brainiac, the heroes discuss their next move when Steve Rogers Trevor, representing the U.S government, informs them—with the exception of Wonder Woman (who possesses Themysciran citizenship)—that they are subject to US law as American citizens which does not allow for vigilantism. He goes on to say that they are warned not to commit any more acts of vigilantism until legislation can be set in motion which would recognize them as acting under the United Nations.

Power Girl (who is of Kryptonian origin and the analogue of superman in this universe) suggests that they could operate from the Fortress of Solitude (Which apparently serves as a Kryptonian embassy located in Metropolis). However Steve Trevor informs them that the United States could ask the embassy to leave and insist that the heroes answer to American authority. (Particularly over the matter of the Batgirl and Robin in this universe being in high school. Something that the government frowns upon as they are still recognized as minors.)

Wonder Woman asserts that she will simply grant them Themysciran citizenship which would make them all subject to Amazonian law which would allow them to continue their acts of vigilantism without answering to American law.

Steve Trevor asserts that this would apparently work for a time but that there would be a number of legal issues if one of them was killed in action.

To counter this, Power Girl asserts that she has the authority to grant them all Kryptonian Diplomatic status as well as the Themysciran citizenship, making them not subject to American authority. Steve Trevor protests this, particularly regarding the fact that half of the team is under 21 but apparently, these actions cannot be countered and he leaves.

This all led to the following questions:

*Could a legislation making allowances for superheroes actually be made? Specifically one that recognizes superheroes as serving under the United Nations.

*Can a nation ask an embassy to leave? I know that this can apply to an ambassador but….

*Could another nation simply grant an American citizen citizenship/diplomatic status? Would something like that even be recognized or is there a process for relinquishing one’s American status?

*Finally, would the whole process even work from a legal stand point as a means for the heroes to continue doing what they were doing?

I’m going to address each of these questions in turn.

I. UN Superheroes

This part seems fairly straightforward.  The US could pass a law or resolution declaring that the US superheroes are acting as UN Peacekeepers, and the UN could pass an appropriate resolution accepting and deploying the superhero forces.  This approach would limit the heroes’ actions to countries that accepted the presence of the Peacekeepers, though.  It would probably also require Security Council approval, but we can ignore that political reality.

II. Kicking Out an Embassy

The short answer here is “yes.”  Contrary to popular belief, embassies are not actually little pieces of the guest country’s sovereign territory.  It would raise a tremendous diplomatic ruckus to do so, but a host country could evict an entire embassy.  Apparently the UK considered doing so in order to get at Julian Assange, for example.  But this is tantamount to completely cutting off diplomatic relations and would not be undertaken lightly.

III. Granting Foreign Citizenship

Sovereign countries can be as promiscuous with their citizenship as they like, and citizenship can be granted outside the normal naturalization process.  The US does it from time to time via private acts of Congress, for example.  The recipient of the foreign citizenship would not even necessarily have to relinquish their US citizenship first, nor would accepting the new citizenship necessarily result in loss of the US citizenship.  8 U.S.C. § 1481, the statute covering loss of citizenship, would not seem to apply if the foreign citizenship were voluntarily offered by the foreign government and did not require an oath of allegiance.  Care would have to be taken that the superheroes were not considered officers in the foreign military, though.

IV. Would This Even Work?

And this is where it all comes crashing down.  If the superheroes are operating in US territory, then the US has jurisdiction over them even if they aren’t US citizens.  And if they try to become foreign diplomats (via Themyscira or Krypton, say), then the US can simply kick them out.  If they refuse to leave then the US can exercise jurisdiction over them in the usual way.

If the superheroes decide to operate exclusively outside the US, then renouncing US citizenship would really get them very few benefits.  Eventually (after the usual penalty period) they would get to stop paying US income tax on income earned in foreign countries, and a few laws affecting actions abroad by US citizens like the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act wouldn’t apply.  But that’s about it.  Waiting for formal legal approval from the US (or whatever country they want to operate in) is probably the better approach.

As an aside: “vigilantism” isn’t a crime as such, at least not in any jurisdiction I’ve looked into.  Vigilantes certainly often commit crimes, to be sure, but it’s possible for a superhero to stay on the right side of the law (e.g. proper use of self-defense, no trespassing to find evidence).

Batman: Dark Victory I: Violations and Remedies

Batman: Dark Victory is the 1999-2000 fourteen-issue limited series which picks up where Batman: The Long Halloween left off, which is in turn a continuation of Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One story. It deals with the aftermath of the Holiday murders. Specifically, some of the legal aftermath of the Holiday murders. We’re going to take a look at one of the major legal plot points here—spoilers within, regarding both The Long Halloween and Dark Victory—and one of the tangential issues that comes up in that setting. Specifically, we’re going to look at allegations of the violation of the civil rights of a criminal defendant and potential remedies for such violations.

I. Violations

The new District Attorney, Janice Porter, says that she’s going to reopen the Holiday file. Alberto Falcone, son of the crime lord Carmine Falcone, was arrested, tried, and convicted for the Holiday killings. But during the arrest, Batman severely beats him, to the point that his right hand becomes essentially useless, permanently. Porter suggests that this is a violation of Falcone’s civil rights.

She’s almost certainly correct. The Supreme Court discussed excessive force by police officers in Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386 (1989). It held that the determination as to whether an officer’s use of force is “reasonable” is a Fourth Amendment question—not a Fourteenth or Eighth Amendment one, as had been suggested—and that the analysis is objective. First of all, for us even to get to this question, there has to have been some kind of state action. There are two possible routes here. One could argue that Batman was a state actor. He was working very closely with Commissioner Gordon at the time, so this is plausible. One could also argue that Gordon standing by and letting Batman hand out the beating amounts to tacit police approval of Batman’s actions, making that a state action regardless of any prior relationship.

Assuming state action and given the severity of the beating, saying that Falcone’s civil rights have been violated seems patently obvious. But what happens next is… not.

II. Remedies

So Falcone’s civil rights have been violated. In real life, most of the time what happens in these cases is that the criminal defendant gets to sue for damages. The Civil Rights Act of 1871 contains a provision, now codified as 42 U.S.C. § 1983, which creates a private cause of action for violations of one’s civil rights by state or local officials.  This means a suit against both the officials and potentially also the state or local government.  Monell v. Dept. of Social Servs., 436 U.S. 658 (1978).  Notably, the suit can be both for damages and for an injunction designed to prevent future harm of the same type.  One wonders whether Falcone could have sued to prevent the Gotham City Police Department from working with Batman in the future.

But damages and possibly an injunction to prevent future harm are pretty much it. Unless the beating lead to the discovery of evidence which was critical in procuring the conviction (e.g. a forced confession), the conviction itself will stand. And in the absence of any change about the defendant’s guilt, any modification or reduction in a convict’s sentence is unlikely. Or rather not just unlikely, but pretty much unheard of. In the story, Porter reopens the Holiday file and somehow gets a Gotham City judge to modify Falcone’s sentence from incarceration in Arkham Asylum to house arrest in the custody of his brother. In real life, it’s difficult to see how something like this might work. Falcone is guilty. There were no irregularities with his prosecution. He got the snot beat out of him during his arrest, but as far as criminal procedure goes, there isn’t anything all that interesting going on.

So this part of the story just doesn’t work. DAs rarely reopen cases, and usually only when there’s new evidence suggesting the defendant’s innocence. But we’re not sure there’s even a mechanism whereby a DA could seek a reduction in a convict’s sentence just because he was maltreated prior to prosecution. If the prosecution wants a lighter sentence, they can ask for that during sentencing. But later prosecutors don’t get to go back and muck about with prior prosecutors’ convictions.  It is possible that a prosecutor could request that the governor commute the prisoner’s sentence, but there’s no sign of that here.

III. Immigration

As an aside, the judge, Judge Harkness of Gotham City, says that if there is any funny business with Alberto Falcone after he is released to house arrest that “I will make it my personal business to see that immigration takes another look at you, sir,” meaning Mario Falcone, who is trying to take his family legitimate. Are there any teeth to this threat?

One is reminded of the ongoing controversy in Arizona and elsewhere about state efforts to get involved in immigration activities. The federal government is, to put it mildly, not amused. The Supreme Court recently struck down parts of Arizona’s SB 1070 law as unconstitutional encroachments on an area of law reserved for Congress. The outcome, while disappointing to some, wasn’t all that surprising to anyone, as immigration is an explicitly federal subject under Art. I, sec. 8, cl. 4.

But that isn’t really what’s going on here. This isn’t an example of a state government making explicit and systematic moves to affect immigration policy. Rather, it’s an example of a state official saying he’s going to use what influence is his to wield to affect the outcome of a particular case for what are arguably legitimate reasons. If a state court judge in a state and community not really known for its immigration problems were to call up his local U.S. Attorney or regional ICE office, he might well be able to get some attention. Not as a matter of law, mind you, but as the sort of consideration that governmental agencies frequently show each other. So while the judge doesn’t have the authority to deport Mario, the story doesn’t suggest that he does, merely that he might be able to make a few phone calls. And he just might.

IV. Conclusion

Dark Victory is absolutely right that Alberto Falcone’s civil rights have been violated. But how that’s supposed to add up to him being released from Arkham Asylum—where he was sent after a successful insanity plea—into his family’s custody is far from clear. And Judge Harkness’ little threat to Mario, while not necessarily describing a formal legal process, may actually have teeth. Informal teeth, but not necessarily any less real.

Superman: Grounded Vol. 1

Superman: Grounded is a twelve-issue story written by J. Michael Straczynski which took up Superman # 700-712. Issues 700-706 have been released in hardcover, with 707-712 scheduled to be released next month. The basic premise of the story is that in the aftermath of the 100 Minute War, in which New Krypton is destroyed, Superman is feeling disconnected from the average American, and really just Earth in general. He gets… uncharacteristcally mopey and philosophical, and the series raises a number of the most interesting and pervasive philosophical and ethical issues with the concept of superheroes, though it fails to come up with anything like adequate answers for any of them.

This isn’t going to be a particularly long post, but there were a number of minor legal issues, most of which we’ve talked about previously, that come up in the course of the story. Continue reading

Law and the Multiverse Mailbag II

In this week’s mailbag we look at three questions from our email that touch on alternate universes, jurisdiction over crimes committed in the Phantom Zone, and contracts.  As always, if you have questions or post suggestions, please send them to and

Continue reading

Superheroes and Immigration Status

One of the most frequent questions this blog has generated, both in comments and in emails, is “What about Superman’s immigration status?”

This is that post.

Immigration law is a purely federal matter and is codified in Title 8 of the United States Code, particularly Chapter 12. Regulations on the subject–the practical implementation of statutes–are found in Title 8 of the Code of Federal Regulations, especially Chapter 5. There are enough different situations created by various superhero characters that we can really put these laws through their paces.

This is a subject that inherently touches on international issues, but since most of the main comic book stories are either set in the United States or completely off-planet, this post will limit itself to discussions of United States law.

The United States immigration process is really, really difficult. We’ll make reference to that chart later.

I. Superheroes Born Elsewhere but Raised in the US, e.g. Superman

8 U.S.C. § 1181 provides that with certain exceptions,

[N]o immigrant shall be admitted into the United States unless at the time of application for admission he

(1) has a valid unexpired immigrant visa or was born subsequent to the issuance of such visa of the accompanying parent, and

(2) presents a valid unexpired passport or other suitable travel document, or document of identity and nationality, if such document is required under the regulations issued by the Attorney General

This creates immediate problems for Superman. He’s not going to have any documentation, as he never went through customs and thus never had an opportunity to acquire the appropriate documentation. The basic story is that Superman, (original name Kal-El), was born on the planet Krypton just before it was destroyed by… something. Depends who you ask. Anyway, Kal-El’s parents put him on a starship escape pod which crash landed in rural Kansas, where Jonathan Kent found him and took him home, raising him as Clark Kent, and only learning later about his super powers.

The actual history of Superman comics is of note here, as Action Comics #1 was published in 1938, when the country, still reeling from the lingering effects of the Great Depression, was smacked by the Recession of 1937. Unemployment was well north of 15%. The Dust Bowl was recent history. So the idea that a motorist in Kansas would discover an abandoned baby on the side of the road was depressingly plausible. In an age when immigration laws were far more lax than they are today, no one was going to ask any questions about the origin of such a child or his lack of a birth certificate.

Granted, the timing would mean that Kal-El would have crashed to earth sometime earlier in the twentieth century, but it seems plausible that the environment in which the comic was actually published would have a lot to do with the way original readers interpreted things.

Of course, recent rewrites do not necessarily enjoy the benefits of those earlier legal environments. Adopting a random infant is actually a lot harder to do these days, as state laws about that sort of thing create a lot of hoops for potential parents to jump through. The upshot is that some kind of documentation would be needed for an infant who basically appears out of thin air. That would require clever forgeries at the very least.

Or a retcon. In at least one version of Superman’s origin story, Jor-El did not place him in the rocket as an infant, but Kal-El was actually in a “birthing matrix” and was thus “born” on Earth, making him a natural born citizen of the United States and thus eligible to be President. Or at least that’s what the Supreme Court held in a 9-0 ruling. Depending on your views of Supreme Court jurisprudence, this may not even be the most fanciful thing they’ve ever done.

II. Adult Alien Superheroes

But this is also an issue for other characters. Kurt Wagner is a German national. Piotr Rasputin is Russian. Professor Xavier could theoretically have sponsored them as an employer under 8 U.S.C. § 1151(d), making them eligible for an employment-based immigrant visa. Take a look at the chart linked above. Persons with “extraordinary ability” are given preferential treatment in the immigration system (8 U.S.C. § 1153(b)(1)(a)) and are eligible for E1 visas. So any superhero connected to some kind of organization, public or private, e.g. the X-Men, the Avengers, the Justice League of America, etc., will probably be able to get this done pretty easily, as they’ve got an employer willing to put their extraordinary abilities to immediate use for the benefit of the country.

Still, the process is not immediate. Visas are issued on a priority basis, but getting a green card–i.e. permission to reside and work in the US permanently–can take a year or two, and actual citizenship can take up to seven years.

One final point: a lot of super characters travel really fast, and do so using their own means of transportation. Superman flies. Nightcrawler teleports. The Flash simply runs really fast, etc. Going from Metropolis to Ohio isn’t that big of a deal, as travel within the United States can be done almost entirely without government authorization, particularly if you aren’t using a commercial airline. But in addition to massive violations of airspace (there’s another post!), simply showing up in another country without going through customs is illegal. Wolverine deciding to go to Alberta to discover his origins is all well and good, but he’s going to have to cross the border somewhere (probably North Dakota), and that means either showing a passport or jumping the border. In essence, a law abiding superhero is going to need official documents, and as discussed earlier, that has its own problems.

III. Foreign Dignitaries

But what about T’Challa, Namor, or even Victor von Doom? All of these are either heads of state or at the very least official representatives of their respective governments.

Now we get into the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, which forms the basis for diplomatic immunity. But while diplomatic status does grant one certain advantages while on US soil, it does not in fact guarantee one admission to the country or provide the right to work for anyone other than one’s home country. Ejecting foreign diplomats is a serious but routine way for nations to express displeasure with other nations without committing an act of war or seriously endangering trade relations. So the fact that certain superheroes potentially have diplomatic status does not necessarily make things any easier for them. It is not entirely clear that someone eligible for diplomatic status would be eligible for the E1 visa that various characters without governmental ties would probably get. This is largely because in the real world, no one with diplomatic status seems to have tried do that, as having diplomatic status basically means one already has (or does not need) a job.

IV. Other Issues

But what about the really weird stuff? Like Thor, or the Shi’ar, or the New Gods?

Well Thor appears to have taken on the body of a citizen, which creates an interesting philosophical problem about the nature and identity of persons. This is exactly the kind of question a court is simply going to punt. It seems most likely that the court would simply grant Thor all of the legal statuses of Blake and have done with it.

Extraterrestrials are a different matter, but it would seem that there is a first-order question that needs to be asked. Actually, this question should probably be asked before any of them. Namely, “Is this character attempting to be part of the world or to blow it up?” If a character is attempting to exist in human society for one reason or another, they’ll need to deal with immigration law in some way. But if they’re, say, attempting to destroy all of reality, well, immigration status probably isn’t something they’re going to lose much sleep over. That’s obviously the extreme case, but someone intent on destroying a major city or taking over the world isn’t probably going to care much about immigration law either, nor will the legal system probably waste much time trying to nail them on something like that when there are available claims for things like attempted genocide.

It is unclear how the legal system would deal with the immigration status of extraterrestrials. Sure, the term “alien” could easily be read to include persons not from this planet in addition to persons not from this country, but practically speaking, no one is actually going to want to do that. Some other solution would almost certainly be implemented. They could simply be granted diplomatic status across the board.

V. Conclusion

Immigration creates a whole new set of problems for superhero characters, and a character that wants to stay on the right side of the law is going to need to figure out how to make this work. Fortunately, there appears to be an existing path to admittance and even citizenship for super powered characters in the form of the priority E1 visa. Other situations will probably require some degree of subterfuge if not outright forgery.

Commentary by James Daily:

An alternative approach to Superman’s status is the foundling statute, 8 USC 1401(f). “The following shall be nationals and citizens of the United States at birth…(f) a person of unknown parentage found in the United States while under the age of five years, until shown, prior to his attaining the age of twenty-one years, not to have been born in the United States.”  While rarely applied in the real world, a court could apply this to Superman.

Superman certainly had unknown parentage when he was found in the US under the age of five years.  The real crux is the meaning of ‘until shown…not to have been born in the United States.’  In most (if not all) continuities, Superman’s true origin was revealed to the Kent’s and to him before he turned 21, but a court could decide that ‘shown’ means ‘legally proven.’  So long as Superman’s immigration status were not an issue before he turned 21, which seems likely, he may indeed be considered a US citizen.