Is Superman an illegal alien? I ask at the risk of getting blasted by heat vision or super breath, but exploring his status actually tells us a lot about America today.
First, let's be clear: Kal-El (do you think he'd mind if we just called him Kal for short? After all, he's got the same first name as Kal Penn.) is definitely an alien, who came here from out of town as a little one. Way out of town. But since he wasn't born here, he can't be a citizen either, unless he passes the exam and a judge swears him in. But is he illegal?
In one sense he has to be, because of his work status. I've read DC comics since 1956, and the issue where he presents his green card seems to have escaped me.
No green card, and he has been working here for a deuce of a long time without one. Which raises a dire question with more relevance than may seem obvious: is Kal taking jobs from native born Americans?
The answer may lie in a recent article by Hector Becerra, a second generation Mexican-American and a reporter. Wanting to find out more about the tasks so many of his countrymen work at, Becerra conducted interviews, and did what the sociologists call a participant-observer study.
Mark Teixeira, owner of Teixeira Farms, explained his employment dilemma. "Americans don't want to do the fieldwork. They'll go over and make hamburgers for $8 an hour... when they can make more money here. I don't care if you pay $20 an hour, they'll come here one or two days and they're gone." Becerra explained how, "Teixeira... has argued... that Americans are unwilling to do the hard work necessary to gather crops. Like other growers, many of them conservative Republicans, he argues for immigration reform that provides for a steady stream of immigrants to do the work others won't."
Then Becerra went a giant step further: he joined the line to gather strawberries, stoop labor at its worst. Starting a long day, "About an hour into the picking my upper and lower back were beginning to tighten and my legs began to burn a little... "
After seven grueling hours he simply gave up. "I surrendered. I didn't need this job." One of his neighbors, a woman older than him who picked so many berries she could afford to mercifully help fill his tray, "smiled at me, as if she understood."
In other words, in many cases, immigrants are taking jobs that natives don't want, that are too hard. Not replacing them in positions that folks are competing for.
So it is with Kal. Let's face it: he's stopping bullets with his bare chest, saving airliners in mid-flight with their engines out, defeating galactic villains.
Is there anyone out there who wants this job? Who doesn't think work like that is too hard for them? I didn't think so.
So I say, get off all these workers' backs. They're doing things we badly need to get done, but don't want to do ourselves.
But that doesn't answer the question of the hour. If the Justice League's premier member will excuse my bluntness, besides the employment issue, is Superman an illegal alien? Does Kal have to worry that ICE will deport him to his homeland (light years away!?!)?
To try and give the big guy piece of mind, let's start with the origin of the term. America has had immigrants for centuries; to our natives, the Puritans were newcomers.
It was only in the twentieth century, however, that we created the term "illegal immigrant." Bigots and nativists were horrified by those horrible groups that were pouring in after the First World War -- Italians, Jews, Poles, Russians, Greeks. So in 1921 and 1924 they passed increasingly severe quota laws stipulating how only a few could enter from these countries each year (the quotas were huge for nice places like England). Anyone who came in over these figures was now considered an "illegal alien".
But for the millions who came in before these laws passed, the term does not apply. I can't tell you how many proud descendants of Southern and Eastern European families have boasted to me: "I'm not against immigration; I couldn't be given my heritage. But these people now are illegal immigrants. That's different. My people, you know, weren't illegal."
I can only bellow in reply, "Of course not! They weren't illegal. Or legal, either. The terms just didn't exist when they came over!" There was no quota for them to fit into.
And so it is for Mr. Red White and Blue as well. As far as I know, no U.S. Congress -- neither the KKK-honoring ones of the 1920s nor the Tea Party versions today -- has ever set up a quota for visitors from Krypton, seeking jobs here.
The term just doesn't apply to him. Just like it didn't to my grandparents. Although, frankly, some people were so upset by my family's arrival they passed laws to keep more folks like them -- and not Mexicans -- out of this country. Thus creating the term "illegal alien." Superman gets a pass because the laws don't categorize him, just like it didn't for so many immigrants from Europe at one time.
Don't even get me started on the Fortress of Solitude.