Breaking News: Superman to Renounce U.S. Citizenship

by Duncan Hollis

I’ve been on a self-imposed blogging hiatus of late due to the dual demands of serving as Temple’s Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and editing the forthcoming book, The Oxford Guide to Treaties (on which I’ll blog more later).   But, I had to pass along the following significant and important development — Superman is renouncing his U.S. citizenship.  Here’s the scoop from Comics Alliance:

Despite very literally being an alien immigrant, Superman has long been seen as a patriotic symbol of “truth, justice, and the American way,” from his embrace of traditional American ideals to the iconic red and blue of his costume. What it means to stand for the “American way” is an increasingly complicated thing, however, both in the real world and in superhero comics, whose storylines have increasingly seemed to mirror current events and deal with moral and political complexities rather than simple black and white morality.

The key scene takes place in “The Incident,” a short story in Action Comics #900 written by David S. Goyer with art by Miguel Sepulveda. In it, Superman consults with the President’s national security advisor, who is incensed that Superman appeared in Tehran to non-violently support the protesters demonstrating against the Iranian regime, no doubt an analogue for the recent real-life protests in the Middle East. However, since Superman is viewed as an American icon in the DC Universe as well as our own, the Iranian government has construed his actions as the will of the American President, and indeed, an act of war.

Superman replies that it was foolish to think that his actions would not reflect politically on the American government, and that he therefore plans to renounce his American citizenship at the United Nations the next day — and to continue working as a superhero from a more global than national perspective. From a “realistic” standpoint it makes sense; it would indeed be impossible for a nigh-omnipotent being ideologically aligned with America to intercede against injustice beyond American borders without creating enormous political fallout for the U.S. government.

It’s too bad we don’t have anyone here at Opinio Juris with views on future trends in citizenship, global identity and the like to comment on this story.  Oh, wait . . . we do.  In any case, it’s clear that someone needs to advise DC Comics on the national and international laws in play here.  For starters, renouncing citizenship at the UN doesn’t seem to cut it under U.S. law.  8 U.S.C. 1481 lists the acts by which Superman could renounce his U.S. citizenship and they involve things like becoming a citizen of another state, declaring allegiance to another state, or formally renouncing his citizenship outside the United States before a U.S. diplomatic or consular office?  There’s nothing in there about becoming a global citizen or aligning with an international organization.  Indeed, can Superman even renounce citizenship while remaining in U.S. territory (and, yes, I consider the UN Headquarters to be in U.S. territory notwithstanding its privileges and immunities under the Headquarters Agreement)?  U.S. law limits renunciation within the United States to “whenever the United States shall be in a state of war” — which I suppose begs another whole set of questions concerning Afghanistan or even Libya.  Also, what happens if Superman has ulterior motives here?  Given his wealth, isn’t the IRS likely to investigate the possibility that this is simply an effort at tax evasion.   And that’s not even getting into the questions of statelessness or international law involved.  Clearly, this is an issue that needs attention from Opinio Juris to make sure D.C. Comics gets this right.  So, commentators, have at it.

14 Responses

  1. How was he even a citizen to begin with? He was not born in the US, his parents were not American citizens, and Section 320 of the INA was not in effect at the time he came to the US and was “adopted” by his parents.

    Maybe he naturalized at some point in the comics? I know nothing about his history in the comic books.  I would love to be the official that gave him his civics test though!

    Thankfully Professor Spiro’s immigration final was yesterday and we need not deal with this!

  2. Response…
    This is more outrageous than the birthers.
    Who will be next?  The Lone Ranger, Hoppy, The Cisco Kid, Crusader Rabbit, Rags the Tiger, Rocky the Squirrel?
    When will this end?

  3. Well, at least it wasn’t Captain America renouncing his citizenship. That would have been really embarassing.

  4. Its not his first time at the UN.

    I’m sure the movies don’t line up with the comics, but from that clip it appears he isn’t a citizen of any country.

  5. Nick, he was adopted by Americans.  I assume that makes him a citizen.

    On the larger question, couldn’t he renounce his citizenship and claim Kryptonian citizenship since he was born there?

  6. As I told Nick, looks like he might be a USC under INA sec. 301(f), which grants citizenship to “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”. Superman was “found” as a baby by his adoptive parents. This might be his basis for citizenship.

    Although if we follow the storyline from Smallville, Superman learned of his alien origins before he attained 21 years of age. Thus, maybe Smallville’s Superman is not a USC.

    Point, it depends which Superman story you rely on.

  7. Okay, Duncan, you beat me to this one.

    Assuming Superman’s got citizenship in the first place (Victor’s got the right provision for that – don’t worry, Nick, you weren’t responsible for that one!), he won’t lose it by making a statement at the United Nations.  He’ll have to make a formal written renunciation before a consular officer outside the United States.  Thereafter, of course, he’ll need a visa to visit the United States.  Should qualify for an EB-1, as an “alien of extraordinary ability”!

  8. I agree that it seems likely that Superman’s renouncing of his U.S citizenship in this manner doesn’t work legally.

    Nonetheless, Superman will have powerful strategic reasons for making his statement at the UN. In short, he is utilizing the threat of Exit as Voice.

    I haven’t read the comic but I assume that Superman was aware that renouncing his citizenship in this way wouldn’t work, but acted as if it would in order to make the exit threat credible.

  9. The orthodoxy version of the Superman story is that he was artificially conceived on Krypton from the genetic material of his Kryptonian parents in an artificial womb. Moments before Krypton exploded, Superman’s artificial womb was attached to a rocket and was set on a course for Earth. Moments after the rocket landed on Earth, Superman’s artificial womb opened and he was “born” in Kansas, and therefore is a U.S. citizen.
    Questions, I also wonder if Superman stateless?, or because of his powers a “sovereign being” recognized as such through customary international law, or will the Fortress of Solitude be de facto or formally recognized as a sovereign state with Superman as a Leader/ Ambassador or at the least have U.N. Observer Status?
    FWIW, I think the renouncement of U.S. citizenship could be considered a slap in the face to all American’s, especially the middle class that supported the Superman franchise for 70 years.  I bet if Superman would have renounced his citizenship during Bush Jr.’s term there would be less controversy because that was the period when the “ugly, stupid and arrogant American” meme was alive and well.  I am keeping an open mind to see where the story is going. 

    Also, let’s see if the Superman citizenship change sticks. In the past D.C. tried to create international spinoffs of the Justice League of America with the Justice League International and Justice League Europe. They lasted for a while, sales faded and those series ended.

  10. in regard to the facts of the case, obviously, it depends on which “Superman story” you rely on. a judge, in any case, would have to decide eventually in which one to believe. 

    adoption, “a person of unknown parentage found in the United States” or birth on US territory – it’s fair to proceed from the assumption of Superman’s acquisition of US citizenship/nationality.

    equally interesting, however, is the question of his renunciation of it at the UN and what this might mean. I believe Peter Spiro that in doing it this way he won’t lose his citizenship. the reasons for Superman’s announced performance at the UN may be varied. but surely it doesn’t function as a “threat of Exit as Voice” but, indeed, is the exit.  since: would the US grant him an easy way back after this acting? he’ll need a visa to visit the United States (just one of the many problems of international movement of persons, including stateless persons). or face even more serious obstacles (maybe less legal but rather factual ones). even though he could be regarded as an “alien of extraordinary ability”, his behaviour, and maybe even his character, will be deemed extraordinary malicious.
    the prospects of being one day accepted as a “sovereign being” recognized as such through customary international law or “de facto or formally recognized as a sovereign state with Superman as a Leader/ Ambassador or at the least have U.N. Observer Status” seem rather dim. the US and possibly all other states will oppose it fiercely or never accept it.

    finally: it’s nice of him that he wants to “continue working as a superhero from a more global than national perspective”. interesting, though, that in this capacity he doesn’t want to abandon his – at inspection rather national than global – values.  that’s the aim of the “global citizen” Superman then: “implement[ing] them on a larger scale and divorce himself from the political complexities of nationalism”? I would put many questionmarks on this statement.
    how must one feel, who feels “too small” for the world for all its connectedness to limit himself with a purely national identity? I accept that this exists but I want to remind of the stirring writings of Hannah Arendt here (“We refugees”; “Karl Jaspers: Citizen of the World?”) who make clear how hard it is as a stateless person and what national identity means.
    maybe Superman is just so far ahead of me that I cant’t share his vision yet. but let’s not forget: he is an alien and, after all, he “can’t help but see the bigger picture.”

  11. I’m not very familiar with Superman’s story beyond when he show’s up in other comics like Batman, but I think his renunciation might just wash out as only a symbolic act.
    Clark Kent is a US citizen.  Clark Kent has not renounced his citizenship.  Clark Kent is the one paying taxes, voting, attending jury duty, and doing all the other mundane acts of citizenship (which does lead one to wonder how he’s dealt with the conflict of secret identity v. being law abiding, e.g. how does he declare the Fortress of Solitude on his taxes?).   Is Clark Kent renouncing his citizenship? 
    As other’s have pointed out, Superman’s declaration at the UN is not really an effective renunciation.  Considering he’s doing it at the UN, it seems like it’s more of a symbolic act directed at non-US states and the public to emphasize that he’s not an agent of the US. 

    On the other hand, I’m not sure how effective even that declaration will be if he keeps crime-fighting in Metropolis.  Although I don’t know the particulars of who knows what about Superman in the DC universe, I assume very few people know his secret identity and the particulars of how he arrived on earth.  Most people only know of Superman as an alien (i.e. non-human) superhero who seems based in Metropolis.  It’s from this and his rhetoric that they deduct that he’s a US citizen or at least a US agent, rather than from any legal documents and such.    He’s going to have back up his renunciation with appropriate distancing from the US if anyone’s going to believe him.

  12. I also recommend the Law and the Multiverse blog for their issue-spotting the legal issues particular to the comic-book universe.

  13. Kal-El is an ILLEGAL immigrant who LIES about his birth citizenship and the rest of his identity. Where is The Donald on this one?!

  14. a blog dedicated to superheroes and the law, I’m so impressed.

    now after all I read from the superman experts I see Superman’s “global citizen” thing in a different light. if I got it right there is (or was?) other life outside the planet earth. so, in principle, the argument that “global citizenship” is a contradiction in terms cannot apply in this situation since there exist other (political?) communities or entities at least.

    now I lack information about the world of Superman: do or did the  earthlings know about the other’s existence? do connections or some kind of communication exist? if there were even the technological capabilities to emigrate to other places in the universe (or multiverse) then, for instance, Kant’s argument against world government – namely that one cannot evade the subjection by the world government – would not hold true either.

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