Will Undocumented Elmos in Times Square Face Immigration Status Checks?

Men dressed as Santa Mickey Mouse and Elmo take a break from posing with tourists for tips in New York’s Times Square Carlo Allegri/Reuters

As more and more out-of-towners flood Times Square every year, New York City legislators are looking to draft legislation that would protect tourists from anti-Semitic Elmos, handsy Woodys and combative Cookie Monsters.

According to City Councilman Daniel Garodnick, his office is in the early stages of the legislative process. “We are discussing with colleagues what route we can take here,” he told Newsweek. “But we want to balance the need to protect constitutional rights with the need to protect visitors from garden-variety harassment.”

However, some worry that requiring Times Square performers to register with the city will subject the performers, many of whom are undocumented immigrants, to immigration status checks.

Earning a living as a costumed performer in Times Square is far from easy but requires little in the way of education or training, which is why undocumented workers often find themselves dressing up as Elmo or Mickey Mouse. Robert Burck, better known as the Naked Cowboy, one of Times Square’s most iconic performers, told Newsweek, “I’m sure a lot of them are probably illegals and are doing the only work they can, so I certainly admire them working so hard and so long.”

Burck doesn’t condone harassment by performers but said he understands where their frustration comes from. “I know the endurance it takes, and I know they’re out there a long time working hard,” he said. “So I imagine when they’re getting stiffed and people don’t want to pay them, [it] makes them angry, competitive.”

The Times Square Alliance hosted on Wednesday a community conditions meeting in which it presented data showing that 16 percent of New Yorkers surveyed said they had had an unpleasant interaction with a costumed performer in the past two years. Tim Tompkins, the alliance’s president, told Newsweek that he supports regulating the performers but that the Alliance won’t support any legislation that subjects performers to immigration status checks.

“We think that any bill should have an affirmative statement saying it’s prohibitive in the course of the licensing process to inquire about anyone’s immigration status or if they have working papers,” he told Newsweek.

If Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to issue municipal identification cards to all New York City residents, regardless of immigration status, goes forward, as it is expected to on Thursday, undocumented performers in Times Square may have nothing to worry about. A representative of the New York Immigration Coalition told Newsweek, “If and when that happens, there would be a form of identification that these immigrants who are working as performers could register with.”

Garodnick told Newsweek he could not say at this point what the legislation would or would not include.

Join the Discussion