Sheri Leigh on what she’s learned about La Migra so far, and where we may want to go next
By Sheri Leigh, September 22, 2023
Back in May 2023, I posted my concerns about a game the high school students in Benicia play, which they call La Migra. At its simplest level, it is a game of chase, with upperclassmen attempting to ‘capture’ underclassmen before they reach a designated ‘safety zone,’ which is located across town from the game’s starting point. In its ideal form, the game promotes outdoor activity, teamwork, creative solutions, and excitement – but it also can (and does) involve hazing, police arrests, traffic hazards, trauma, kidnapping, and racially based harassment and assault.
Ever since I first heard of the game, I wanted to know more, and I vowed to share what I learned with the community. Since then I have interviewed several people, including some who have participated in the game, a non-participating student who was racially targeted and assaulted in the name of the game, our school district’s superintendent, the police chief, a descendant of Mexican immigrants who was upset by the title and its meaning, and a host of community leaders, including parent and City Council Member Kari Birdseye. I can certainly do more, but here is what I have learned so far.
First, the game is completely student led. It’s been a Benicia tradition for decades, with its popularity waxing and waning over the years. Its popularity recently surged, probably a result of the isolating years of Covid. None of the event planning or promotion is sponsored by the school district. It doesn’t take place during school hours or on school property, and therefore the school district has no legal right to take disciplinary action against any students who may commit criminal acts while playing the game.
Some of the students who have played found the game fun, exciting, and edgy. They like the autonomy and the potential danger, and even the unknown consequences of getting ‘caught.’ They found the game to be one of the only engaging and interactive activities available to them. There is nothing else like it in the community. There is no laser tag, no paintball, no safe room, and no bungee jumping nearby. Not even a bowling alley. The closest thing Benicia has to offer teens looking for an adrenaline rush is the haunted train depot, which is only an option during the month of October.
Despite the youthful enthusiasm surrounding the activity, many people have experienced severe, long-term trauma from the La Migra Game. Its structure promotes bullying at its worst level. Some young people have been shot with ice pellets and called racial- or gender-based hate names, and have felt compelled to hide in fear for their lives. And I’m not exaggerating. Others were unceremoniously ‘captured’ and taken alone at night to far away or remote locations. Some of the victims weren’t playing or even aware of the game at all. Imagine what an unaware young person thinks if they are suddenly grabbed, thrown into a car trunk, and driven away in the middle of the night? I know what I would be afraid of. Fortunately, so far, no one has died or suffered long term physical harm, but the potential is definitely there.
And beyond the individual targeting of young and vulnerable people, the title and the premise is racially charged. The fear that surrounds the words ‘La Migra’ is very real to many people. Among a group of migrant workers, when someone yells ‘La Migra,’ many run, terrified of apprehension and deportation back to the extreme hardships they could have fled. Beyond mimicking the real fear many feel when hearing the words La Migra, the game glorifies a very serious problem this country has with immigration. United States immigration policies are difficult and expensive to navigate for foreigners. The immigration officers have a reputation of brutality. And generally speaking, there is little compassion for people entering this country illegally, even when they are here because they fear for their lives or their family’s well-being, and want nothing more than to have a job and feel safe. Sadly, American culture (particularly white American culture) maintains a historic lack of tolerance and acceptance of newcomers and foreigners.
Do we really want our children emulating a painful and very genuine national tragedy?
La Migra is not only an opportunity for hazing, or worse; it also has a serious impact on public safety. The students who are playing are caught up in the excitement of the chase. Young people playing the role of the “undocumenteds” are jumping into private yards, running across the street at a moment’s notice, and using other pedestrians, businesses, or cars as shields. In the meantime, those posing as the ICE officers are driving recklessly, and upping the ante by shouting threats or names at their quarry and, more recently, by wielding weapons or firing pellet guns, often without concern whether or not their target is actually voluntarily participating in the game.
In the late spring of 2022, following the report of one particularly brutal incident involving two unaware and non-participating young people who were attacked by a truck full of students charading as ICE officers who were playing the game, a well-attended town hall meeting initiated by those most impacted was held in a local church. It turned out that these young people’s experience was far from an isolated incident. A host of others who had been victimized and traumatized during the games also spoke up; many who spoke are now adults who still carry the trauma with them. It was an emotionally painful account of this long standing tradition. The evening prompted community action.
Early in the 2022-23 school year, the Benicia School Superintendent spoke about the dangers of the game at every school staff meeting. He and his staff sent an informative email to all Benicia families and sent several follow-up emails as the La Migra game night grew nearer. Student leaders actively discouraged others from taking part in the game. The superintendent himself showed up at the opening of the game and personally tried to convince students to go home, rather than get involved in something that could have long-term legal and emotional effects.
As the evening of the 2023 game approached, the City and the Police Department sent out warnings to residents, encouraging families to keep their children home. And although the Benicia police have always been aware of the game, this time they made a bigger effort to keep our young people and community safe. Several extra police officers were out that evening on overtime, costing our City untold amounts during what many are calling a financial crisis, and more than 20 students were apprehended; one was charged with battery for firing a gel pellet gun loaded with ice at another student. Parents were required to pick up their children at the police station and face the consequences of having their son or daughter involved with the law.
And I have been researching and writing articles from a variety of perspectives trying to inform our community about the game.
What’s left to do? A lot! Communication is a big part of this, and we can do more. But we also need to address the very real voids that La Migra seems to be filling for young people who are otherwise lacking healthy, positive outlets for their creativity and energy. Again, there’s nothing beyond sports available in this community for young people who seek healthy engagement, competition, and an adrenaline rush.
There’s also a need to address how education fits into this conversation. One perspective that I have heard over and over again is that there is not much taught or discussed at schools about the challenges and trials that immigrants face in this country. If we want to promote acceptance and inclusion, we need to raise awareness at every level, starting in early education and carrying it through to high school graduation.
And as a community, what about cultural celebrations? Vallejo hosts many events – sponsored by the City or various community groups or both – that celebrate cultural diversity, such as Dia De Los Muertos festivities, a Filipino Festival and more. Here in Benicia, we finally have a Juneteenth celebration and a Diversity Festival, and both have come about thanks to the hard work and ingenuity of the community organizations that put them on, namely Benicia Black Lives Matter and the Benicia Foundation for the Performing Arts, respectively. I also want to acknowledge that Benicia has a long-standing Portuguese Holy Ghost parade, to honor those with Portuguese heritage.
But that’s not much. According to our most recent census, over 30% of our population is non-white (~14% Latino, 11.5% Asian, 3.5% Black, 12% mixed races, etc.) and yet, we don’t do much to celebrate or recognize our cultural makeup.
We can do more. And we should!
If you ask the average person in this town what they love most about Benicia, a common answer is how welcoming and friendly we are. Let’s own that! Let’s start thinking critically and proactively about how and why La Migra came to be popular with Benicia youth, what’s missing from our children’s education and our town’s calendar of community events that could have contributed to this sad reality, and what can be done – what we can do together – to honor and celebrate the cultural diversity and positivity that makes this town truly great.
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