Is ‘La Migra’ racist and dangerous, or is it just for fun?

Sheri Leigh speaks with a former Benicia High School student about ‘La Migra’ for one player’s more positive perspective

Sheri Leigh
Sheri Leigh, Benicia resident and educator.

As I continue my quest for information regarding the La Migra Game, one young man, now 20, volunteered to share a more positive experience with me. He had played the game in the part of an ‘escapee’ or ‘undocumented,’ during his freshman and sophomore years, before the pandemic hit, and found it to be fun. I appreciate that this young man, who prefers to remain anonymous, was willing to give me his perspective. He was pleasant, candid and open with me in our extended phone conversation. He also demonstrated a depth of understanding into adolescent behavior, which I found impressive. 

Although there have been many reports of the inherent dangers and racist implications of the ‘La Migra’ games, some who have chosen to participate have described their experience as exciting, challenging, liberating and an excellent opportunity for teens to engage in a creative, student-led activity unrestricted by adult rules. It is a way for students to become involved in a very physical outdoor activity. One such former student, whom I’ll refer to as Max, chose to participate as an ‘escapee’ during his first two years of high school. He was only able to play twice, and may have continued had the pandemic not caused a halt to all social activities. 

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 broadcast showing footage of the game starting.

From Max’s account, the game was well publicized. He felt that all students were aware and could freely choose to be part of it or not. He does not recall any explicit rules prohibiting anyone from sharing the selected date, time and starting location with any adult. Max asked his parents if he could participate, and they did not object. 

At the appointed date and time, Max, along with the other game players, gathered at Jack London Park at the corner of Hastings and Rose Drive, where the game started. No one wrote down the names of the participants, but Max knew many of the people there. He recalls those playing as racially representative of the student body at large on both the escapee and the pursuer sides. Max is ethnically of mixed Filipino and white cultures himself, and did not sense any discomfort in regards to his ethnicity, nor did he find the title ‘La Migra’ to be offensive or racially discriminatory. 

In the safest version of the game, younger students playing as ‘undocumenteds’ must travel from Jack London Park to Fitzgerald Field while evading capture by older students posing as ICE agents. In more violent iterations, students have been assaulted both physically and verbally on First Street and Military among other locations. This Google Map shows a few possible routes children can take through Benicia to reach their destination.

The ‘undocumenteds’ were given a ten-minute head start to make it across town to Fitzgerald Baseball Field on East 2nd and East H Streets, traveling on foot while evading capture. The students posing as ICE officers pursued in vehicles, attempting to catch them before they reached safety (the field). Max did not get caught either year he played, but his friend did. The students who picked up the friend dropped him off ‘somewhere else’ in town, where he continued playing with a more extensive route to safety. Eventually his friend made it to the baseball field, too, although it took him longer than most. The whole process was about five hours. 

When asked about what punishments the captured students may have received, the worst Max had heard was that some were egged. He did not hear of any non-participants getting targeted, and felt that anyone could simply call out that they ‘weren’t playing’ if approached, and that would be respected. Max also felt that the students were mindful and watched out for each other’s behavior, making sure that everyone was respectful and safe. According to Max, no one he knows of ‘got out of line.’

When asked about police involvement, Max said he found them intrusive. It was clear from his perspective that the police were definitely aware of the games and would stop to interrogate and intimidate students whenever the opportunity arose, tamping down the collective enthusiasm.

From Max’s description of his experiences the games seem reasonably benign and, from a teenage perspective, fun. There is the thrill of being chased, of participating in something edgy and loosely structured, and of being victorious when successfully arriving at the safe zone without being apprehended. It keeps kids away from their electronics and the internet for at least one active evening. It provides an engaging activity for Benicia’s youth in a community where they do not always have an outlet for their creative energy.

Some Benicia children participate in the game for an edgy student-led physical challenge in a town that some feel does not offer youth enough opportunities for creative expression, outdoor activity and interpersonal connection. | This image is a still from a 2018 KBCW broadcast and has been blurred to protect child privacy.

And it’s student led. Since the game has been going on for decades, obviously, it fills a need that young people have for an all-engaging, community-building activity. 

When I shared with Max the more recent experiences of a non-participating student who was called hate-based derogatory names and shot with ice pellets, he was appalled and agreed that the behavior of those particular students was cruel and dangerous. He insisted that wouldn’t have happened in the years that he played.

We discussed how isolation from the pandemic and the internet seem to have disrupted the development of important moral values and socialization skills in adolescents. It seems that many teens no longer know how to treat another individual who is not in their social bubble with proper respect and concern. He believes that if this type of behavior continues it is likely to lead to a complete shut-down of the games, which would be a loss to the youth of our community. 

Max had an ideal experience with the games, one that in a perfect world would be how it is meant to be played – with fun, safety and respect first and foremost. Unfortunately, with the loose structure of the game, including minimal rules, no records kept, and no oversight, there is a lot that could go wrong. One or two cruel individuals or one safety mishap could lead to a participant or bystander getting injured, being traumatized, or killed, in a horrible tragedy for all.  

The question remains, can we satisfy the need for a student-conducted game filled with exciting and imaginary dangers that do not turn into real ones? 

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:
Leave a voicemail for the BenIndy: ‪(707) 385-9972‬

(This is not a live line. You will be sent straight to voicemail.)


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