BPD Chief on ‘La Migra’ 2023 – 20 students ‘apprehended,’ one facing charges

Sheri Leigh spoke with Benicia Police Chief Mike Greene about the facts – but not the implications – of ‘La Migra’

Sheri Leigh
Sheri Leigh

Since I know that the police are very much impacted by the ‘La Migra’ Game, I thought it was important to engage Benicia Police Chief Mike Greene and Public Information Officer Irma Widjojo in this important conversation. The three of us met one morning at the police station to discuss the impacts of the game on public safety and trends, but I also wanted to get their perspectives. Chief Green was firm in his opinion that the game should be eliminated, but maintained his position from a public safety standpoint, rather than the personal trauma or racially charged implications of the game. As a professional in a very prominent position of local law enforcement, I felt Chief Greene had to be careful of presenting only the facts, not the implications.  – Sheri Leigh

Benicia Chief of Police Mike Greene is a 30-year law enforcement veteran, long-time Benicia resident and graduate of Benicia High School. | Uncredited image from BPD website.

Our Public Safety at Risk

The annual high school student-led ‘La Migra’ Game is designed to be a rite of passage for underclassmen. The juniors and seniors give the younger students who are participating a head start and then try to catch them before they reach the “safety zone,” which is in another part of town. The specific date, starting, and end points of the game are kept a secret by the upperclassmen until the final moment. It’s a game of chase that is played outside of school jurisdiction. The game is scheduled on a weekend evening in the spring, so the light is varying and lots of people are out enjoying the improving weather and charm of our community. It typically carries over into public areas, including First Street.

A lawn with kids running away.
‘La Migra’ is slang for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and is the name used for this controversial game based on ICE agents deporting undocumented immigrants. This image is from a 2018 video showing footage of the Game starting. |

‘It’s not a game to everyone’

Many say that the Game is a community tradition. But it’s not a game to everyone. The Benicia Police Department, headed by long-time Benicia resident, Benicia High School alumni, and 30-year law enforcement veteran Police Chief Mike Greene, finds this game to be a serious threat to public safety and a drain on public resources.

Each year the ‘Game’ is played, the department receives a huge increase in calls that evening, requesting police help on everything from noise disturbances to traffic safety issues, trespassing and assault. The captors are generally in a vehicle, while the targets are on foot. When captors spot one of their targets, a chase ensues. This leads to unsafe and even reckless driving by young and inexperienced drivers, and young people on foot jumping fences, going on to private property, and/or running in and out of traffic to avoid “capture.”

In the more recent years, it appears there has been an increase in the vehemence of the chase. Some of the participants are publicly yelling profanities and racially or sexually charged names at their targets as they pursue. This year and last, a few of the pursuers used a gel-pellet gun (Orbeez brand) to brandish and fire at their targets.

This is the Orbeez-brand ‘P90 Assault Rifle.’ Orbeez sells a variety of gel-pellet weapons mimicking the appearance of real weapons, including this gel-pellet assault rifle, a submachine gun and a gatling gun. | Image from Orbeez Gun’s website.

Worse yet, there are young people who did not intend to participate, many of whom did not even know the game was in play, who have been targeted. This creates fear and trauma among the unwitting visitors and members of our community, and takes away from providing a safe environment for everyone that the police department and community leaders work so hard to sustain.

20 Benicia youth ‘apprehended’ in 2023; one student referred to Solano DA

When looked at from a broad perspective, there is a tremendous amount of potential for community disaster. The likelihood of someone getting seriously injured or killed, whether or not they are actually “playing,” is high. It’s easy to imagine a scenario where a student being chased runs into the street to avoid capture and is hit by a car. Or a small child inadvertently wanders between a pursuer who is firing a gel-pellet gun and a target and is hit in a vulnerable part of their body. It is only a matter of time before something disastrous occurs. In addition, the ‘Game’ creates trauma for those who are not voluntarily involved and yet are affected – who are, in effect, collateral damage.  [Note from BenIndy Contributor Nathalie Christian: Toy guns can kill. Sometimes they kill directly, like when a 13-year-old girl was shot in the eye with a BB pellet on Independence Day, 2022. Sometime they kill indirectly — police have killed at least 245 people carrying toy guns after mistaking them for real firearms, according to the Washington Post.]

‘La Migra’ is costly, and Benicians pay the price

Police Chief Mike Greene is very much in favor of disbanding the ‘La Migra’ Game. The police department maintains a proactive enforcement approach by working in conjunction with the Benicia Unified School District and other community agents.

This year, they were able to learn the time and date the ‘Game’ was to be held, about a week ahead of time. The chief put five additional officers on active duty that evening, most of them on overtime. Officers were on hand to follow through when calls came in, and approximately 20 teens who were involved with the ‘Game’ were apprehended.

After the young people received a lecture on public safety, their guardians were called, and the circumstances and safety concerns regarding the Game’s danger’s were explained before remanding the youths to parental custody. One youth was referred to the District Attorney’s office on charges of battery for use of a gel-pellet gun. Although these efforts tapped police and community resources on an already tight budget, it was the most success the police force has had at intervening in the ‘Game’ and curtailing some of the dangers. They will continue their advanced efforts into the future until the ‘Game’ is no longer a threat to our community.

From a purely objective standpoint, Benicia is a safe community. According to the statistics put out by the United States Department of Justice, the crime rate in the City of Benicia is relatively low. For example, in 2019, we had 16 reports of violent crime, which is much lower than nearly all other Bay Area cities of a similar size, such as El Cerrito (152) and East Palo Alto (144) and Pleasant Hill (88). ‘La Migra’ threatens the status Benicia has earned by creating an unsafe environment for participants and non-participants alike.

It needs to stop.

Sheri Leigh to join BUSD Board President Sheri Zada in discussion about racism in schools Tuesday, June 13, 7pm (over Zoom)

Sheri Leigh has been involved in matters of equity and restorative justice practice throughout most of her adult life.  She has volunteered on Equity committees at nearly all of her workplaces; at three different high schools, she introduced and facilitated “Link Crew,” a program designed to welcome and include all high school newcomers. She has been a supporting member of Benicia Black Lives Matter since 2020.  Sheri is the facilitator and author of the “Our Voices” articles on matters of current and historical racial injustices, and is currently working on exposing the complex, somewhat dangerous, and often damaging tradition of Benicia’s “La Migra” games.

Sheri Zada is President of the Benicia Unified School District School Board.  She has been on the board since 2018.  Sheri is a retired school librarian and union rep.  She also has worked with special needs children.  She is the mother of two sons.  Sheri has also been on the City of Benicia Tourism Committee.  She is a strong advocate to stand up against gun violence and was an organizer for the first  Benicia March for Our Lives.

This event is free and open to the public, not just PDB members. Use the Zoom information below to access the meeting.

Join PDB Zoom Meeting: https://us02web.zoom.us/j/82362109045?pwd=bG9SMzE3RnA5VlJWeXhUMWhUNjk5Zz09

Meeting ID: 823 6210 9045
Passcode: 039610

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Share your story

If you would like Sheri to hear and share your perspective on the ‘La Migra’ Game, please contact her through the Benicia Independent. Remember that it is your story that is critical for others to hear, not your name, unless you would like to be identified.
Reach out to Sheri: benindy@beniciaindependent.com
Leave a voicemail for the BenIndy: ‪(707) 385-9972‬

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