Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-NY) raised eyebrows recently after claiming to be an “undocumented immigrant” because his ancestors faced discrimination in the country.The (perhaps) misguided attempt at showing solidarity with the immigrant population has drawn strong criticism from advocacy groups.
“I’m an Italian-American, I came from poor Italian-Americans who came here,” Cuomo said in remarks made last week. ” You know what they called Italian-Americans back in the day? They called them wops. You know what wop stood for? Without papers. I’m undocumented. You want to deport an undocumented person, start with me, because I’m an undocumented person.”
A day earlier, Cuomo alleged that he was “raised by poor immigrants from South Jamaica,” a neighborhood of Queens. As Splinter News reported, both of his parents were born in New York. And the term wop, while derogatory, does not appear to mean “without papers.”
Make the Road New York criticized Cuomo for his remarks and noted in a statement that his privilege as an American citizen means he does not have to “face any of the challenges associated with undocumented persons.”
Cuomo previously overstepped the boundaries of solidarity in January 2017, when he identified with too many groups to which he does not belong.
“As a New Yorker, I am a Muslim,” Cuomo wrote in a tweet at the time in response to President Donald Trump’s first Muslim travel ban. “As a New Yorker, I am Jewish. As a New Yorker, I am Black. I am gay. I am disabled. I am a woman seeking to control her health and her choices. Because as a New Yorker, we are one community.”
The New York governor has not been the only lawmaker to co-opt the immigrant narrative. To a different degree, Republicans and white nationalists have tried to take away the general understanding of “Dreamers” as undocumented immigrants who came to the country as children.
Cuomo may have meant to show solidarity when he called himself undocumented. But for a man who holds a blue passport reading “United States of America,” he has no idea what it really means to be an undocumented immigrant. He would never get sent to Italy, where the U.S. State Department has issued a “Level 2” travel advisory warning as of January. In comparison, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico all have “Level 3: reconsider travel” warnings from the government. Deportation could mean a death sentence for immigrants who are sent back to these countries.
For undocumented immigrants, their legal statuses define their day-to-day interactions with Americans. For young people, it may mean showing up at a bar much earlier than your date so you can show the bouncer your foreign passport in lieu of a driver’s license. For older people, it may mean laughing through the lie that you never got your driver’s license because you live in big cities and love public transportation. Only 12 states and the District of Columbia have allowed driving privileges for undocumented immigrants thus far.
Being undocumented means looking behind you as you’re carrying groceries home, even when you have deportation relief and work authorization under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. It also means leaving your phone on the loudest setting on a nightstand, next to a post-it note listing out the hotline number for advocacy groups, in case you’re the only call for a loved one who gets detained by federal agents.
Immigrant allies are strongly needed in the Trump era. After all, the president has authorized a series of executive orders to detain and deport undocumented immigrants regardless of whether they have strong ties to their communities or even whether they’ve committed crimes in the first place. However, Cuomo and other lawmakers should know that to be an immigrant ally, it does not mean to become an immigrant. Most of all, it does not mean he gets to co-opt a public movement largely built on the labor of undocumented youth.