Hiding Behind the Cape


By Michele Bacigalupo

Photo by Jimmy Tyler.

The creation of a fictional law enforcement agency is certainly one way to cause a political stir.

The agenda behind ICE DISH, or US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Department of Illegal Superheroes, is to investigate and detain illegal immigrants disguised as superheroes. Neil Rivas, an artist based in California, first created ICE DISH in 2012. What began as a social activist project turned into a full-blown parody of ICE, an actual branch of the government. The respective websites for both ICE DISH and ICE bear striking similarities.

At the recent Comic-Con International meeting in San Diego, ICE DISH sent an outreach team of representatives. The team members work to educate the community about the happenings of illegal crime fighters. ICE DISH agents alert unknowing citizens that their beloved superheroes may be living in the country illegally. The primary goals of the outreach team include building awareness among community members and larger organizations, while encouraging individuals to become involved with the ICE DISH campaign.

The ICE DISH field office began as an art installation at Galeria de la Raza, a non-profit arts venue in San Francisco. Rivas was the gallery’s first resident artist. When the office was first installed, the display contained jail cells, a most-wanted board, surveillance monitors, filing cabinets for top-secret documents, and a physical training station.

Rivas prefers to discuss ICE DISH from the perspective of the agency itself. He steps outside the project as if he has little involvement in it. He is deeply committed to the illusion that ICE DISH contains the power to detain illegal immigrants, and as a result, the agency has expanded well beyond its initial growth. According to its official website, ICE DISH now has several field offices, detention facilities, ICE DISH UFO’s (Undisclosed Facility in Oakland), and other operations throughout the country. The organization also re-commissioned the Immigration Station at Angel Island.

The ICE DISH project is performance-based and intended to engage the community. In interviews, Rivas refers to ICE DISH as if it is a true government operation, but hardly refers to the art that serves as the foundation of the project. ICE DISH first started with a series of posters bearing iconic crime fighters with the stamp “illegal” underneath their feet.

With his use of well-known comic book characters, Rivas has opened the conversation on immigration to people who may have not gotten involved otherwise. The concept of illegal superheroes makes the topic more approachable, and inspires people to discuss more complex political ideas.

The superheroes represent the alien attribute of immigrants. Throughout their myriad stories, they are constantly viewed as outsiders, faced with the challenges of belonging to a world where they are noticeably different.

The grand opening of the ICE DISH headquarters was attended by Captain America himself, the first legal superhero to condone the office. ICE DISH agents have since gone on to rely on help from documented crime fighters to track down ones that are living in the US illegally.

Take a moment to think about where all the legendary heroes come from, back to the beginning of each comic book. Superman’s story marks him as an illegal immigrant to the US. His parents sent him to Earth from the planet Krypton, without bothering to follow through with any of the proper documentation required of an immigrant. The infant, then only known as Kal-el, landed in Smallville, Kansas, where he was adopted by a generous human couple, the Kents.

Given a new name, Clark Kent grew up to lead a life that holds many parallels to the stories of countless illegal immigrants. He worked too hard, hoping to create a better future for himself and those he loved. He accepted the burden of fighting for the greater good, doing what nobody else was willing to do. For all of his effort, not only did he not receive minimum wage, he received no pay for his heroic deeds, and little appreciation from his peers.

Superman is far from alone in his illegal status. Many other superheroes are in a similar situation.

When a caller reaches the ICE DISH hotline, a menu of options is presented. The first of which asks the caller to report any illegal activity regarding a superhero from the most-wanted list. Among the names in greatest demand are Black Widow, Optimus Prime, Electra, Martian Manhunter, and Nightcrawler. The caller can connect to an extension for each hero, which details events that led to illegal infiltration into the country, and a request for the caller to leave a report about suspected activity.

Illegal superheroes walk amongst the rest of us with both ease and difficulty. The costumed get-up makes it simple for them to carry on undetected. In an environment like Comic-Con, where many of the attendees are already engaged in cosplay, it is easy for illegal superheroes to blend into the crowd. Of course, in any setting other than a comic expo or movie set, a person dressed as a superhero is bound to stand out.

Feedback on the ICE DISH project can be construed as amused and intrigued, albeit a bit confused about its satirical agenda. So far it has proven successful in sparking discussion regarding the political issues at hand.

Illegal immigration in the US is an issue that is often put on the back burner, receiving little resolve. President Obama said that he intends to announce a new plan for immigration before the end of the year. While the country waits for the president’s statement, the ICE DISH hotline is available to provide information on the pursuit of illegal icons such as leader of the Autobots, Optimus Prime.