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The Illegal

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"So don't tell anybody, what I wanna do
If they find out, you know that they'll never let me through..."
Genesis, "Illegal Alien"

A character who has entered the country illegally. They are usually female, speak with a Central or Eastern European accent (sometimes their home country won't be specified or it will be a vague Ruritania substitute) and are being exploited by the evil human traffickers who brought them over. They will probably end up in a brothel, strip club or factory sweatshop run by The Syndicate.

Increasingly common in UK crime drama. A common trope on U.S. police shows, as well. The nationality of the person being exploited varies. Exploited sweatshop workers or other blue-collar laborers are Latino, Asians, or occasionally Eastern Europeans. If the situation involves human trafficking for purposes of forced prostitution, the case almost always Asian women, from China, Thailand, and other semi-industrial countries. An appropriate mob organization (Russians, Tongs, Yakuza, The Irish Mob, Italians) will be the string-pullers.

In any case, the person in question, due to fear of the gang and the terrible punishment doled out to non-compliant workers (beatings, torture, and mutilation), language barriers, and poverty, they will have little recourse. Cooperating with the cops can mean a death sentence.

A recent variation happens because illegal immigration is a political issue in the United States. Typically the illegal alien is Mexican, hardworking, speaks perfect English, can be of either sex, and is exploited only in minor ways which elicit sympathy for him without implying he would have been better off staying home. In fact, they are usually treated sympathetically. Some Aesop may be delivered on how US immigration laws should change.

Sometimes Played for Laughs in US media by having the illegal be Canadian or some other comparatively outlandish nation. This version never faces deportation or exploitation, but might face resentment from (legal) Latino or Asian immigrants.


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    Anime and Manga 
  • Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei has an unusual Japanese version: Maria, an illegal alien, probably from the Philippines, Southeast Asia, or somewhere farther off. She bought the identity of a male student in Itoshiki-sensei's class despite looking like she's ten years old or so, but doesn't bother to crossdress or otherwise act like him. Poverty and lack of education in her home country makes Japanese high school very strange to her.
  • Fullmetal Alchemist:
    • Ling Yao is an illegal immigrant from a place called Xing. He's sent to jail, but breaks out later. Since he's a prince, he could probably be considered a diplomat or such, but he didn't have his papers (and they wouldn't believe he was only 15) when he was arrested.
    • The other three characters from Xing (Fu, Lan Fan, and May Chang) are also there illegally, but they never got arrested.
  • In Mobile Suit Victory Gundam, Usso's family, as well as Shakti, are mentioned to be illegal immigrants to Kassarellia. The reason is that they are actually Colonial citizens from Side 2 (which is currently at war with the Federation), and the Earth Federation very rarely allows immigration from the Colonies to the Earth's surface.
  • Monster Musume has Suu the Slime Girl, who's not just an illegal immigrant but a member of a previously unknown species. However, the local representative of the government agency managing interspecies affairs declares new species and illegal immigrations "Not [her] problem" since she already has too many other duties.

    Comic Books 
  • In the Uncanny X-Men, a group of (ex-mutant) women are imported from Russia as prostitutes.
  • The S.W.O.R.D. (2009) series involves Henry Peter Gyrich (Marvel's go-to for "Jackass Bureaucrat") taking control of the eponymous organization. He promptly declares that every alien on Earth, whether they previously had clearance or not, is now an illegal. He begins taking measures to have every last one deported. Even the ones who come from empires or planets that no longer exist.
  • Klara Prast of the Runaways may be an illegal alien. According to promotional materials released around the time of the team's guest appearance in Avengers Academy, there is no record of her having entered the United States. Her backstory also fits with that of many illegals — she was forced to work in an unsafe factory and sexually exploited by her much older husband. For reference, she was about eleven years old at the time.

    Film — Live Action 
  • Meta-example: When Janette Goldstein showed up to audition for Aliens, she had interpreted the title as meaning illegal aliens and showed up dressed as a migrant worker. Made it into the movie as a joke over breakfast.
  • Parodied in the Cheech Marin comedy Born in East L.A., where the main character is merely mistaken for an illegal alien and tries to get back home to L.A. after he's deported.
  • In Bowfinger, when Bobby Bowfinger needs a film crew, he just goes to California's border with Mexico and offers shelter to a few fugitive immigrants.
  • The central conflict of Blue Bayou is that Antonio was never naturalized as a citizen despite being in the United States since age three, and is now facing deportation.
  • The villain in Coneheads is an INS agent determined to expose the Coneheads as not only space aliens, but illegal aliens, and have them deported.
  • El Norte is a very dark take on this, focusing on the suffering and despair of two Guatemalans who enter the United States illegally after facing persecution in their home country.
  • Le Havre: Idrissa, a teen boy found in a shipping container in the port of Le Havre, trying to join his mother in London. Also Marius's friend Chang, who reveals that "Chang" isn't his real name and he's been living in France under forged papers for years. There's also an illicit refugee camp at Calais near the coast, where Marius goes to find Idrissa's grandfather.
  • Human Cargo (1936): The smugglers who serve as the film's antagonists bring illegal migrants into the states and extort money out of them by threatening to expose them.
  • Journey of Hope is a dark tale of a Turkish family trying to sneak illegally into Switzerland to get work. They're ruthlessly exploited and cheated until the climax where they're abandoned by the human traffickers at the top of the Swiss Alps.
  • Jupiter Jones from Jupiter Ascending was born on a freight ship in the middle of the Pacific as her mother was fleeing Russia for the United States. As a result, she has no official country of origin and explicitly refers to herself as this during her opening narration.
  • Seth Rogen's character in Knocked Up is the Played for Laughs Canadian subtype.
  • The Machete films has this as an underlying theme, following the trend of exploitation films to be used to preach political aesops. The trope is spoofed in Machete Kills when Master of Disguise El Camaleón (disguised as a Mexican) is about to be shot by rednecks who mistake him for an illegal immigrant. He removes his fake mustache and talks in his normal voice to show he's not Mexican, only for the rednecks to assume he's Canadian and shoot him anyway.
  • Margarita: The protagonist is a Mexican who's lived in Canada for six years and does not have permission to. After the police learn this when she's in an accident, she gets ordered to leave.
  • The movie Men in Black starts with the The Men in Black intercepting a bunch of Mexicans trying to cross the border into the United States. Preventing aliens from entering the country illegally, however, turns out to be not their primary concern... unless the illegal aliens are from outer space.
  • No One Gets Out Alive: Ambar is an undocumented illegal immigrant with very little money. When she finds strange things are happening in the building, and suspects that the tenants are behind it, she eschews going to the police about it because she's afraid of being discovered.
  • The Proposal is a little different, in that Sandra Bullock's character entered the country legally on a work visa, but now she faces deportation because her visa has expired.
  • St. Vincent (2014):
    • The inept moving crew in the beginning of the film may or may not be this; Vincent's accusations imply he believes they might be.
    • Subverted in the case of the supervisor Oliver's dad hires. Vincent threatens to call Immigration on her, but she informs him that she is a citizen.
  • Three of the five members of the main cast of 22 are illegal immigrants, which is why the characters are reluctant to go to the police even as they are being killed off one by one.

    Live Action TV 
  • Our Miss Brooks: In the episode "Two Way Stretch Snodgrass", Mr. Conklin and Miss Brooks, pretending to be Stretch Snodgrass' parents, spin a story of illegal immigration and a secret marriage to preserve their masquerade. Mr. Conklin's daughter Harriet walked in the room, threatening to blow up the scheme when she identifies Mr. Conklin as her father and claimed her mother (Martha Conklin) was nowhere in sight.
    Miss Brooks; Your father and I, your father and me, we've been secretly married for sixteen years.
    Harriet Conklin: But I'm almost seventeen.
    Miss Brooks: I'm over seventeen. I was hoping you wouldn't notice it.
    Biff Mooney': What is this all about? Mrs. Snodgrass, I demand to know the truth!
    Harriet Conklin: Mrs. Snodgrass!
    Mr. Conklin: You might as well know the whole story Harriet. As a poor but honest immigrant, I entered this country illegally. Your mother and I started out from the old country together.
    Miss Brooks: But I, your mother, couldn't make it. They shot me at the border. Of course, years later I was smuggled into the country.
    Mr. Conklin: With a group of Oriental laborers.
    Harriet Conklin: Oriental laborers?
    Miss Brooks: Don't look down your nose at me, girl. I helped build Boulder Dam!
  • The Wire has dead eastern European woman found in a cargo container as the impetus for that season's investigation.
  • Angel has a bunch of women exported from another dimension.
  • I Married Dora was about a millionaire who married his illegal alien maid so she could get a green card.
  • Taxi: Latka turns out to be an illegal and marries a prostitute for a green card.
  • One of Dexter's victims was importing illegal immigrants, then holding them prisoner to extort money from family members already in the country.
  • Catalina from My Name Is Earl. She came to America in a box from a Banana Republic called "Guadelatucky" to escape from her mother, who was trying to kill her to get a kidney for her brother.
  • JAG: In "Sightings", a terrified Mexican man in tattered clothing appears outside J.D.'s trailer just before the bright lights and deafening noise hit (and Cathy's disappearance). It seems he was trying to escape from the Cartel's underground base, where illegal immigrants were being forced to work in the drug running operation.
  • Silicon Valley: Gilfoyle is a formerly-illegal Canadian.
  • Midnight Caller:
    • Kid Salinas, aka Carlos Mendez, came to America illegally before falling under the control of a corrupt boxing promoter.
    • Alicia Flores from "Uninvited Guests" fled to America after her brother was murdered by military police. When she witnesses a murder, she doesn't want to go to the police for fear of being deported.
  • The Starsky & Hutch episode "Velvet Jungle" involves an immigration ring that brings people from Mexico, puts them to work in the garment industry, then forces them to give up half their paychecks.
  • Night Visions: The episode "Cargo" revolves around a crewman on a freight ship who discovers that one of the shipping containers is full of people, implied to be eastern europeans being smuggled by human traffickers. They're actually supernatural monsters, possibly some kind of vampire, being brought to the States to work as assassins for the Russian mob.
  • The Office (UK) has Lee and Dawn's sojourn in the US. They entered the US to visit Lee's sister and stayed three years on a 90-day visa, only returning to Slough when the documentary crew offered free tickets. Since the two of them lacked work permits, they're forced to support themselves with jobs that paid cash under the table, like gardening and babysitting while living rent-free with the sister.
  • Cobra Kai: Invoked. Johnny explains Miguel's presence in his newly started not-yet-up-to-code dojo to a building inspector with that Miguel is an illegal he picked up to help with repairs, and most definitely not a student. The building inspector accepts this without comment.
  • In episode of CSI, Brass heads the investigation of the murder of the manager of a burger restaurant, and the leading suspects are a homeless man and an employee who stole the identity of another person. In the end, the manager turns out to have been molesting the employee, and when the homeless man tries to intervene, the manager gets killed. Brass tells the female employee that the homeless man has been apprehended, however, she won't be charged with identity theft as she is in the country illegally, and as soon as her interrogation's done, she will be handed over to the immigration officers waiting outside. She counters that she is an American as she was brought as infant and has no memory of the old country, and Brass says he would like to let her go, considering everything she's been through, but his hands are tied.
  • In Orange Is the New Black, after getting released from prison, Maritza keeps violating her parole and frequently goes clubbing, when she's eventually busted by immigration officials she insists the whole thing is a mistake since she's an American citizen. She's detained and taken to immigrant detention center, where she insists that her citizen status will ensure her quick release. When she finally gets in touch with her mom, he asks her to bring the documentation to prove she was born in the United States and go home, her mom then reveals she lied about her birth, and Maritza was actually born in Colombia, thus making her an illegal immigrant. At the end of the episode Maritza is seen chained to other deportees, boarding a plane that will take them to a country they either forgot about, or never even knew.
  • Elementary: In "You Do It To Yourself" the "wife" of the Victim of the Week reveals that she moved to America from China illegally because the victim promised to marry her. It was only when she arrived that he revealed he had no intention of marrying her and proceded to abuse her knowing that she couldn't ask anyone for help without exposing her status.
  • Gang Related: Ryan Lopez originally entered the US illegally with his family.

    Video Games 
  • Coffee Talk: On September 30, a F.I.R.E. agent drops by the café to look for an alien wearing a spacesuit. Neil then reveals in The Stinger that he's the alien being hunted down because he's also an illegal alien in the literal sense. As a result, he's going undercover as a human, and in Episode 2, he changes his name to Silver.
  • Like a Dragon: Illegal immigrants to Japan show up all over the series, as enemies, quest-givers and allies. It also occasionally becomes a plot point that Japan is one of the few countries in the world that does not grant birthright citizenship, meaning that the children of illegal aliens are also illegal aliens.
    • Yakuza 0:
      • Jun Oda mentions in passing that he is Chinese, and stowed away on a boat to get to Japan.
      • Tetsu Tachibana is a Chinese citizen and the son of a Japanese soldier and a Chinese prostitute, who was denied birthright citizenship simply because the Japanese government chose to disavow all children of soldiers born during World War II. His lack of citizenship becomes a minor plot point, as it prevents him from seeking proper medical attention and forces him to rely on a Back-Alley Doctor.
      • Similarly Makoto Makimura is also not a citizen, for the same reason, and that makes her a target for various criminals with unsavory intentions. Her backstory involves being kidnapped and the victim of sex slavery of a kind that was so traumatic it made her go blind.
      • One side-story involves Kiryu helping a trafficked woman get a pizza. Yes, a pizza. She definitely wanted a pizza and not a visa.
      • There is also the district known as "Little Asia", an area crammed into Kamurocho which is entirely inhabited by illegal immigrants.
    • Yakuza 2: The Jingweon Mafia is made up entirely of Korean illegal immigrants. Membership in the organization passes from parents to children.

  • In Jupiter-Men, Lupita McKay, Arrio's late mother, is revealed to have been an extradimensional visitor from the Magi Dimension who crossed the border between worlds in violation of interdimensional treaties. She later settled down with a husband and gave birth to Arrio and Jackie before passing away some time before the present day. Nathan threatens to deport Arrio for his extradimensional heritage despite living his whole life on Prime/Earth, only relenting when the Avalon twins show Arrio into Nathan's lair and reveal his Secret Identity.

    Western Animation 
  • In Justice League: Gods and Monsters, one of the many changes to the world compared to the standard DCAU is that Superman's pod wasn't found by the white, middle-American Kents, it was found by undocumented Mexican workers while they were dodging ICE. This has the effect of giving Superman a much harsher and more cynical view of the US government, and also making him an illegal alien.

Second variation:

    Comic Books 
  • In the 2008 "American Dream" miniseries from Marvel Comics, American Dream meets an illegal alien of this type.

    Film — Live Action 
  • In a subplot, the Disney soccer film The Big Green sees the titular team's captain and his mother fleeing Texas police. She's afraid of their being split up, because he's a citizen and she isn't.
  • Icebox is about a boy from Honduras named Oscar who escapes to live with his uncle in America after he gets forced into joining a gang. Oscar barely makes it into America before immigration finds him wandering alone in the desert. He spends the rest of the film going through the immigration system.

  • The Crocodile God's main plot point is how Haik the Filipino-Australian is revealed to be an illegal immigrant in both Australia and the US. The Fil-American Mirasol took him to the hospital after she found him washed up on the California beach, and ICE officers showed up at her house a while later to arrest him and ship him back to the Philippines. An additional layer is that Haik is the title's Filipino god, who's roaming around nearly-forgotten since Spain colonized the islands. It's also pointed out that Mirasol may get jailed or sent to the Philippines despite being an actual American citizen, as punishment for "helping a criminal."
  • Edilio from Gone is implied to be this, which is confirmed in Plague. This results in a Moment of Awesome in Light: a police officer was about to deport Edilio and his family, but upon recognizing Edilio (now a hero due to his actions in the FAYZ), the officer instead calls four other cars full of cops to protect him.
  • In the Midst of Winter: Evelyn was allowed to stay after she crossed the border because she was younger than 18, but after she reaches that age, her stepsister tips off the ICE. So she has to leave her mother and ends up finding work out of state.
  • Amir from Clade fled Bangladesh after the government collapsed. He spent a long time in a detention center where his wife and daughter died before he escaped and became a beekeeper in the countryside. He lives in constant fear of getting caught and sent back to the detention center.

    Live Action TV 
  • House: Juan "Alvie" Alvarez, a friend the title character made in rehab, is a variation. He's actually from Puerto Rico, which makes him a US citizen, but he doesn't have the papers to show it, endangering his planned move to Arizona.
  • Shown in Smallville where an illegal alien boy working in Kansas was one of the few people who found out Clark's secret. The episode also compared illegal aliens to Clark. Admittedly it's a little heavy-handed in the comparison.
    • Clark muses over the fact that technically he's pretty much the ultimate illegal refugee given he isn't even from the same galaxy. Or species. Whilst as a child he was "officially" adopted by the Kents, thus making him legally an American citizen, it's worth noting on the show this adoption was illegally obtained through Lionel Luthor who owed the Kents a favor.
    • Of course the comparison also extended to the fear of being discovered, which is something Clark could relate to and then some. After all the laws regarding citizenship apply to humans or at the very least to individuals born on Earth. As do the laws prohibiting human rights abuse. So quarantining and experimenting on a Kryptonian, for example, wouldn't technically be illegal.
  • Roswell, New Mexico takes advantage of its setting near the border to use this. Arturo, Liz's father, is the most prominent example, and has been working towards citizenship for nearly twenty years before finally obtaining his visa in season 2. It also comes up in many of the crime plots, as undocumented criminals and suspects can be deported before the investigation can happen and undocumented victims are harder for the system to track.
  • From 9-1-1: Lone Star, Probationary firefighter Mateo Chavez. Though he came to the US illegally, he currently has legal status due to being brought as a toddler by his parents, and working as a firefighter would easily enable him to gain permanent residency... except he's very close to aging out of DACA protections, so if he gets cut from the Austin Fire Department, he gets deported to a country he doesn't remember.
    • The first time it comes up, it's an issue, but a solvable one: he washed out of the fire academy four times previously, repeatedly failing the written exams due to his dyslexia. Once his new captain makes sure he takes advantage of ADA accommodations to have the exam read to him, he passes with flying colors, and it looks like his immigration troubles are over.
    • However, the end of season 2 sees him temporarily reassigned after the main firehouse is burned by an arsonist... and his new captain is a sudden reminder of how the pilot opened with an explanation of how the AFD's institutional racism was so bad, the federal government had to intervene. And the new captain can dismiss Mateo any time he wants.

  • The protagonist/narrator of the Genesis song "Illegal Alien", which provides the page quote.
  • Calexico's song "Across the Wire" is rather vaguely-worded, but can be interpreted as a song about two Mexican brothers sneaking into the US.
  • The political satire group Capital Steps wrote a song entitled "Welcome to the State of Arizona" (Sung to the tune of "Hotel California") centering around a man in a large coat being confronted by a police officer at the border. Then the man casts off his coat to reveal that he's a Navajo, and proudly states that his people had been fighting against illegal immigration since 1492.
  • The Mexican norteña music band, Los Tigres del Norte, song Tres Veces Mojado (Three times a wetback) which tells the ballad of a Central American migrant as he makes his way from his home country, through Mexico, towards the U.S.
  • Indio Solari's "To Beef or Not To Beef" is about an illegal immigrant trying to get into the U.S.

    Video Games 
  • Yakuza: Like a Dragon: A major theme in the game is the vulnerability and desperation of people living in the cracks of society, illegals among them.
    • The Geomijul and Liumang are made up of Korean and Chinese illegals, respectively (the bulk of the Geomijul are defectors from the Jingweon Mafia mentioned above). However, many of them are second or third-generation illegals, stuck in lives among the downtrodden because Japan lacks birthright citizenship and there is no path to naturalization. In spite of being able to pass for Japanese, and being Japanese in all the ways that matter, that they are unable to partake of government services, including medical care and education. Naturally, crime is their only way to survive.


Video Example(s):

Alternative Title(s): The Undocumented


We Get the Job Done

This Hamilton Mixtap song expands on the famous line from the play to tell the story of those who live in the shadows, who fear the next ICE raid, and who have built the US economy.

How well does it match the trope?

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Example of:

Main / AnImmigrantsTale

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