Transformers: Immigrants in Disguise?

This month’s column was inspired by a question from Hoop, who asks:

Depending on which version of the Transformers story you prefer, the Autobots either A: came here in the modern day, which means they would have to somehow be subject to U.S. immigration law, or B: crash-landed well before humans occupied the North American continent, and only awakened in the 1980s.  As such, would they be granted retroactive citizenship in the same way that the residents of the former Colonies were?


There are two issues here.  First, could intelligent robots be granted citizenship at all, and second, how would it play out in those two different origin stories?

In order to be a citizen one first has to be a legal person.  While there has been some argument about whether intelligent non-human aliens like Kyptonians might be automatically treated as legal persons (we think they wouldn’t be), the case is even harder for intelligent robots.  They’re just too different from what the Founders and past Congresses had in mind when writing the Constitution and various statutes.  Hope is not lost, however.  There are signs that it is within Congress’s power to grant legal personhood to non-humans, so long as it did so explicitly.  Cetacean Community v. Bush, 386 F.3d 1169 (9th Cir. 2004) (discussing legal standing for cetaceans such as dolphins).

Personhood is really the crux of the matter, as the Constitution does not define the term, but the Fourteenth Amendment does provide that “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.”  Thus, if Congress defined the robots to be persons capable of naturalization, then presumably they could be made citizens.

As a nice side effect of this framework, the Autobots would not be subject to immigration laws when they first arrived because they would not yet be legal persons, so that solves that problem.

And how would the naturalization law likely be structured?  Would the Autobots have to get in the queue like everyone else or could Congress simply declare them to be citizens?  Perhaps unsurprisingly, it could simply declare them to be citizens.  A good analogy might be Native Americans born in Alaska after it was purchased from Russia but before it became a state.  8 U.S.C. § 1404 declares that “A noncitizen Indian born in Alaska on or after March 30, 1867, and prior to June 2, 1924, is declared to be a citizen of the United States as of June 2, 1924.”  Native Americans born in Alaska after that date were citizens by birth.  So Congress could pass a law to the effect of “A noncitizen Transformer resident in the United States before January 1, XXXX is declared to be a citizen of the United States as of January 1, 2013.”

While Congress could probably structure the citizenship law in order to avoid giving citizenship to any Decepticons remaining in the United States, it probably couldn’t deny them legal personhood.  Thus, granting rights to the Autobots probably means that the Decepticons get trials rather than simply being consigned to the scrapheap.