Superman has always looked like the American flag -- a symphony of red, white and blue -- streaking through the sky. Of course, the inconvenient truth is that America's most beloved superhero is what the Immigration and Naturalization Services would dub an "illegal alien." He crashlanded into the country without papers, grew up under an assumed name. Now the Man of Steel, the latest incarnation of the all-American superhero, is becoming the poster boy for immigration reform.
It's a bird. It's a plane. It's an immigrant.
Define American and the Harry Potter Alliance have started the "Superman is an Immigrant" campaign. Its Tumblr explains why:
Born on Krypton, he came to this country with the promise of Hope -- the symbol he bears on his chest. Many of our families also have a history of immigration. We share Superman's hope and we continue his fight for truth, justice and the American Way.
"Superman was an illegal immigrant who came to America and we were all blessed because of it," editorializes Our Tiempo 2.0. "Yeah, we know it's a comic, but many of us know some heroes in real life who came here illegally."
It's tempting to dismiss this as yet another movement trying to co-opt an icon for its cause. Why cannot we let a superhero be an old-fashioned superhero who just does what he's supposed to do -- save the world and the damsel in distress -- without burdening him with all this excess ideological baggage?
But the baggage is not being foisted on it by activists. "His motivation to me, is a lot about wanting to fit in, and be a part of our world because his is gone. It's like the ultimate immigration and adoption story," director Zack Snyder tells the Toronto Star. DC Comics just launched a new comic as well -- Superman Unchained. Artist Jim Lee tells USA Today, the character is "ultimate immigrant" who embodies "truth, justice and the American way the same way an immigrant that comes to the United States would hopefully feel."
Long before immigration reform became the battle du jour in Washington, D.C., the immigrant story was in the Superman's genes. He was created by Joe Schuster and Jerry Siegel whose parents were Jewish immigrants from Europe. It was always meant to be a story about the outsider trying to assimilate. "Superman disguised his identity by wearing glasses and acting like a nebbish in order to blend in, just as many Jews took on different names or changed aspects of their lives in order to suitably assimilate into American society," writes Jason Edelman in the Jewish blog Moment.
When Jor El and his wife put their baby into a pod and send him hurtling through space to Earth, they send him off with the classic immigrant blessing: "Goodbye my son, our hopes and dreams travel with you." Comic-book writer Mark Waid tells USA Today "What is the hope of the immigrant than at core a promise that it would be better in America? That no matter what your situation is, it will be better here."
Man of Steel's plotline is really about this quintessential question of where the immigrant's loyalty lies -- the country where he has grown up, represented by the wholesome Kents, or the distant planet where he was born, represented by the menacing Zod. It's a galactic version of the infamous Norman Tebbit loyalty test for British immigrants: "A large proportion of Britain's Asian population fail to pass the cricket test. Which side do they cheer for? It's an interesting test. Are you still harking back to where you came from or where you are?"
Tebbit was wrong. A 2004 survey found while a majority of blacks and Asians thought themselves as British, 60-70 percent of Scots and Welsh did not. But that loyalty test persists. "We wanted to give him this Sophie's Choice of you can be human, or you can have your Kryptonian world back, but you can't have both," says Man of Steel's writer David S Goyer.
Superman clearly would pass Tebbit's test with flying colors. He is the inspiring story of the undocumented immigrant coming out of the closet. His adoptive father fears the consequences. He tells him to keep his powers a secret. But Superman dares to do it. He is the dream child of the DREAM Act for which children who had come to the US without papers willingly march in the open hoping that going public will force America to deal with them as people rather than as an issue. This Superman too is out of the closet to Lois Lane from the get-go. And he sweeps aside lingering doubts about his patriotism when he tells a general "I'm from Kansas. What's more American than that?" (California or New York would clearly have been a different story).
On June 21, Hutchinson in Kansas will rename itself Smallville and Clark Kent will be inducted into the Kansas Hall of Fame but immigration activists should be wary about pinning too much hope on the Superman Is an Immigrant campaign. Everyone ultimately wants a Superman on their side. The INS even has a citizenship category for that -- Alien of Extraordinary Ability or the O visa.
The question is, does America want to legalize the not-so-supermen and women? The ones who had no Kryptonian space pod to bring them safely into middle America but crossed mountain ravines and rivers on foot in baking sun and freezing cold? The ones who have no superpowers other than picking lettuce, building houses, and cleaning toilets?
After all, when Superman is done reducing Metropolis to rubble in his fight against the forces of evil, they are the ones who will be needed to rebuild America again.
Another version of this blog appeared originally on Firstpost.com.