Tag Archives: Benicia Police Department

‘Is Benicia a Sundown Town?’

Sheri Leigh continues her reporting on ‘La Migra’

Sheri Leigh
Sheri Leigh

I first heard about the particular incident involving this young person when listening to a recording from a Town Hall–style meeting that occurred on April 28, 2022. The pain in the voice of the then 16-year-old clearly came through even on the less-than-ideal recording as he told his story to those in attendance. He completely captured my heart and my attention. I was put in contact with his mother who spoke to her son about my article, and they both agreed to meet with me at Rragg’s Coffee Shop one quiet afternoon. They were waiting for me at a corner table when I walked in. The young man who told his story to me was a year older in body than when the event took place, but decades older in spirit. His voice and mannerisms were that of a mature, intelligent, gentle young man who had experienced trauma but was determined to share his story so that others in the future would not have to endure the same treatment. His mother was clearly supportive of her son, and was trying hard to balance her protective instincts with her need to let her son feel the pain of speaking his truth. Although tears came to her eyes while he told his story she fought through them and gave him space. Later, on the phone with me, she and I both cried. – Sheri Leigh

‘Is Benicia a Sundown Town?’

In 2022, Benicia organizers put on a Town Hall–style meeting to raise awareness about the danger and trauma that can come from ignoring or downplaying the ‘Game’s’ violent, racist framing. | KTVU Fox 2.

As experienced by a 17-year-old Latino and Indigenous male, who is also 5-year Benicia resident

I started school here in Benicia in 2017, but it wasn’t until last year that I woke up to the danger that is inflicted on young people who are labeled as different because of the color of their skin, their sexual orientation or gender identification. 

My awakening happened on a Friday evening on the eve of spring break, 2022. My friend, a young female of color, and I were walking around on First Street. We could sense an excited tension in town. There seemed to be more traffic and more noise, which we chalked up to young people in anticipation of vacation.

Escalation from game to assault

We were crossing First Street after getting ice cream when the occupants of a large white truck drew our attention by loudly revving the engine. As we looked towards them, one of the passengers, a white male, put his head out of the window and started making barking sounds and yelling something unintelligible at my friend. This angered me, and I told him to “screw off.”

The assault described here took place on Benicia’s First Street, near restaurants and businesses usually considered safe spaces for teens and youth. | Image from 2022 KTVU broadcast.

No sooner were the words out of my mouth when a passenger said to the others in the car, “Let’s get them!” The truck made a sudden and aggressive turn so that they were driving parallel with us. They started shouting derogatory things, calling me a “f—t” and my friend the n-word.

Now nervous, we tried to ignore them and walk away as fast as possible. As we were quickening our pace, we heard metallic clicking noises from the truck and a gun was fired at us. I was hit in the face near my eye and across my hand, and my friend was hit on her torso. We didn’t know at the time that they were shooting ice from a gel pellet gun. The pain was very real. The gun looked real to us, too. The truck continued up First Street, but we could hear our original assailant yelling, “Hurry up and turn around, so we can get those m—f—s.” 

We didn’t wait for their return. Instead, we ran down a side street and into a fenced yard of a private home where we hid in some bushes behind the homeowner’s vehicle. We were both injured and terrified. For about 45 minutes, we could hear the truck going up and down the street looking for us. When they finally gave up, we cautiously made our way to a commercial building and found an elevator, where we hid again for over an hour while we called our families for help. Because we were in shock, we had a difficult time providing our specific location, but eventually my sister found us. She took us to my mom and the police who were waiting by the Benicia Senior Center. 

Mixed police response

The police took our statements and examined our lacerations. We were badly bruised and bleeding. My traumatized memory of being interviewed that evening is vague, but I do remember feeling bothered that the officers had no sense of urgency or seemed to exhibit any compassion for what we experienced.

I learned later that the dispatcher initially tried to dismiss my mother’s request for help. My mom was told that I had obviously gotten myself involved in an annual “game or prank” the kids play on each other every year on a designated evening around spring break. My mom had to convince the dispatcher that this incident was worth police involvement.

Over the next few days, the police were able to view the incident on film. They identified the license plate of the truck and tracked down the owner and the driver. Eventually, they identified several other young people in the truck that night – one female and the rest males; all white; all attendees of Benicia Unified; and all but one under the age of 18.

They also found the owner of the gun and the gun itself. Although the kids were interrogated, none of them confessed to being the hate-shouter, nor the shooter, and no one was prosecuted. The school district was informed, but because the act took place off campus and outside of school hours, no disciplinary actions were taken.

The only follow up for us took place a few weeks later. The detective on our case asked my mom and me if we would be willing to have a supervised meeting with the one youth who was over 18. We agreed. The meeting was held at the police station with the detective and one other police officer present. The other kid and I were each asked to tell our story and “hash it out.” No apology was required, and none was forthcoming.

When it was over, the detective persuaded my mom and me to sign a statement of release that waived any further prosecution on the grounds that this young man would have his life ruined if we went forward. Feeling coerced, we both signed the waiver. I now regret that. This young man and his friends had enthusiastically participated in an activity which is comparable to Russian pogroms or KKK lynchings and have not had to endure any significant consequences.

A game for some, a nightmare for others

The so-called game is called “La Migra (Immigration) Night” and, although the title has changed over time, it has been going on for decades. I have since learned that it is a night where many upperclassmen students, usually white and usually male, chase down the underclassmen. They have been known to harass, kidnap, and, as in my case, assault other students of color or anyone else who is different and/or appears weak and vulnerable, whether or not they are an actual participant.

ICE Agents menace a parade
ICE’s enforcement practices create racist narratives primarily targeting Latino individuals. These issues are echoed in and reinforced by the Game. | Uncredited image.

Nearly all of the students know about this “game.” Some of the underclassmen willingly take part, taking on the challenge of being chased. Many others stay in for the night, afraid of the possible consequences of being “captured” and/or knowing that the “game” is morally, ethically, and legally wrong. I was unaware of this long-time tradition because of my relative newness to the community and because Covid interfered with school activities for a significant amount of time between my arrival here and last year. Since that evening last year, I learned that an estimated 50-75% of the white upperclassmen boys participate in the chase. And it’s horrifying.

Although the evening may be over for the young people in the truck, it is not over for me. I suffer from symptoms of post-traumatic stress and I am no longer comfortable participating in school or district-wide events, including senior prom. It’s difficult for me to attend school. Now I avoid walking down First Street and have since that evening over a year ago. I am not able to enjoy or be part of this beautiful community.

I feel like I am living in a Sundown Town – one where it is not safe for those who are different or vulnerable to be out at night.
It certainly does not feel safe to me.

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

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


LEARN MORE ABOUT ‘LA MIGRA’

Versions of this story have been shared by other print and online sources, including the Benicia Herald. The Herald  does not have an online edition. To support our local newspaper, please subscribe by email at beniciacirculation@gmail.com or by phone at 707-745-6838.

BenIndy’s New Serial: Sheri Leigh on ‘La Migra’

It’s No Game – The Profound Danger of ‘La Migra’

A wall is spray painted with the words 'No One Is Illegal'
Photo by Miko Guziuk on Unsplash.

By Sheri Leigh, May 12, 2023

I’ve lived in Benicia for ten years. Until recently, I was working a demanding job as a school counselor first in Antioch and then in Petaluma, and I had little time to focus on my own community. Benicia was my haven away from the pressure of work where I could stroll downtown on a weekend or a day off, enjoying the cute shops, a glass of wine by the water, and live music. 

Last July, I took the big leap and retired from the public school system. Although I am still working part time, I’m based at home, and I can now pay more attention to issues within our local community and get to know our town leaders. 

It was just this year that the annual ‘La Migra Game’ that Benicia’s high school students are orchestrating hit my radar. 


The title ‘La Migra’ conjures up images of immigration raids […] targeting desperate people who don’t have any resources and are trying to get into this country so that they could have a better life for themselves and their families. It conjures up xenophobia and cruelty. 


I heard a vague reference to the game in passing, when one acquaintance laughingly said, “If Benicia’s biggest problem is that a kid every now and then gets dropped off at Lake Herman as part of a game, then we don’t have a problem.” I didn’t completely understand what she was referring to until I read a statement of ALERT in my email from the Benicia Independent on March 30 of this year. The article was brief, but it cited the physical and emotional dangers of the game and how it taps police resources. 

ICE Agents menace a parade
ICE’s enforcement practices tear American families apart, undermine community trust in law enforcement and create racist narratives primarily targeting Latino individuals. These issues are echoed in and reinforced by the Game. | Uncredited image.

What is ‘La Migra?’

I started investigating and soon learned that the Game has been going on for decades. What I heard initially was that the junior and senior high school students of the community were tracking down younger students, primarily students of Color, kidnapping them, and releasing them in remote areas on the outskirts of town. As a counselor, as a mother, as a grandmother, and as a human being, I was sickened to learn that this was happening right under my nose. 

The title ‘La Migra’ conjures up images of immigration raids on businesses harboring undocumented workers or round-ups near the Mexican border targeting desperate people who don’t have any resources and are trying to get into this country so that they could have a better life for themselves and their families. It conjures up xenophobia and cruelty. 


I was starting to wonder if some of the Benicia high schoolers are engaging in their own miniature, gamified version of weeding out those who are different from themselves. If so, this is a problem – and a big one. 


The pursuit and disposal of those who are different or vulnerable is hardly a new concept. As recently as 30 years ago, the police in Saskatoon, Canada were picking up individuals from the Cree tribe and dropping them off in the night in remote areas during the winter months, when the temperatures sometimes dropped as low as 10-15 degrees below zero F, leaving them to find their way back or freeze to death. I was starting to wonder if some of the Benicia high schoolers are engaging in their own miniature, gamified version of weeding out those who are different from themselves. If so, this is a problem – and a big one. 

I discussed the Game recently with Mario Giuliani, our Interim City Manager. Although he does not in any way condone the Game, he initially responded to my concerns with a reference to the voluntary nature of it. 

I did more research, and yes, there are some students who willingly play the role of victim, probably for the excitement and challenge to reach safety before being captured by the ‘ruthless’ upperclassmen. But I still felt uneasy.

Here are the rules of the Game, as I understand them. Those who are playing the game meet at a predetermined area and time. The self-designated targets are given a 10-minute head start, emboldened with the goal of making it across town to a “safe area” before they are captured. The younger students are on foot, while the upperclassmen, posing as ICE officers, roam Benicia in vehicles, trying to track younger students down, in order to . . . what, exactly? 


The pursuers are caught up in the excitement of the chase, and anyone young and vulnerable out on that night is just another potential target. Or victim.


The rules, the danger and the victims

On the surface, the rules of the Game seem moderately innocent, with consenting targets who have a good chance at making it through the game safely. But when a target is captured, the punishment can be severe and dangerous. For just one example, I learned that one captured student was dropped in the City of San Francisco with no money and no cell phone. Others have been shot with ice pellets. In some cases, the Game has taken on a racialized aspect, with offensive slurs and abuse flying alongside the ice bullets.

Another unfortunate consequence involves the victimization of young people who are not engaged in the game, and may not even be aware of it. The upperclassmen who are in the role of pursuer do not always know which students are participating and which are not, and sometimes they are not even concerned about the difference. The pursuers are caught up in the excitement of the chase, and anyone young and vulnerable out on that night is just another potential target. Or victim.

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.

The possible dangers of this game are endless. There’s a lack of attention to traffic and public safety on both sides. There are unwitting victims. There’s the trauma of being captured, assaulted, and/or whisked away to an unknown area alone, whether voluntarily engaged or not. There’s the natural cruelty that arises in many humans when they take on the role of predators (those of you who have read Lord of the Flies know what I mean). And so on. 

I need to know more. And I would like for you to know more.


If you would like me to hear and share your perspective on the ‘La Migra Game,’ please contact me through the Benicia Independent.


Starting with this initial editorial, I will be writing and collecting a series of articles reflecting as many perspectives as I can gather and, although I am personally horrified by the Game, I will try to present each perspective as objectively and without judgment as I can. 

To that end, I would like to speak with anyone with any experience with the Game, including law enforcement, anyone involved with the school district, parents, witnesses, and students who have willingly participated on either side, as well as anyone who was out in public on a Game night and affected. 

We all have buy-in.

These are our children.

This is our community. 


As a former school counselor, and an actively engaged mother and grandmother, equity in education and in society have always been a focus of mine. Anyone can become an agent of change towards the betterment of my community and humanity at large, and I consider myself such an agent. 

I would ultimately like to see the La Migra Game disbanded forever or at least morphed into something that satisfies the need for healthy competition but is safer, more cooperative, and confidence-building in nature. 

If you would like me to hear and share your perspective on the ‘La Migra Game,’ please contact me 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. I promise to honor your story and perspective to the best of my ability, and to work toward a safer and more equitable Benicia.

Reach out to Sheri: benindy@beniciaindependent.com
Leave a voicemail for the BenIndy: ‪(707) 385-9972‬

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


LEARN MORE ABOUT ‘LA MIGRA’

ALERT – Dangerous LA MIGRA game Friday

Talk to any Benicia high schoolers you know!

[BenIndy Contributor Nathalie Christian – On Wednesday, March 29, the Benicia Unified School District (BUSD) issued a district-wide warning that the annual occurrence of the racist, violent “game” Benicia High School students call “La Migra” is anticipated to occur this Friday, March 31. For more than 20 years, the La Migra “game” has inflicted deep emotional and often physical harm on Benicia’s vulnerable youth, especially our youth of color. La Migra also claims countless hours of our police department’s time, tying up emergency resources and costing Benicia thousands in overtime wages and related spending. Despite all of this, too many in Benicia consider La Migra a harmless tradition. Although the game occurs off campus and is no way organized or condoned by BUSD, the district is right to call for an immediate end to this event and to warn the community of the imminent danger. – N.C.]
Last year at this time – KTVU FOX 2 San Francisco

Let’s Stop ‘La Migra,’ A Dangerous Game of Chase – March 31, 2023

Posted by Benicia Unified School District 
March 29, 2023

Dear Benicia Community,

We want to bring your awareness to an unsanctioned and dangerous activity that Benicia teens have participated in over the last twenty years, which is an underground, and unwelcomed event in our community. It is a chase-and-capture game referenced as  “La Migra”. This activity happens in the Spring, usually on a Friday evening in late March or in April. We have information that suggests this game may take place on Friday, March 31, 2023.

While this activity is not in any way organized or condoned by the schools, Benicia Unified School District, or the City of Benicia, there is an urgent need to provide our community with information and ask for your partnership in putting an end to this event once and for all. We want to provide awareness about this event and see it stopped for two important reasons:  the inappropriate, racist, and offensive nature of the game and the  incredible safety concerns for our students and innocent bystanders.

“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. The event involves older students chasing younger students through the city, trying to catch them, and then possibly transporting or holding the student against their will. The event begins at one location, typically a park in town, with the younger students attempting to get to a second designated location without being caught by an older student. A student that is captured is sometimes dropped off in an unknown location. There are reports of extremely unsafe situations in the course of this event, including unsafe driving, students dressed in all black with masks running through backyards and private property, speeding, physical contact causing injury, unsafe physical detainment, and students being left without the ability to contact someone to pick them up. It is important to stop this activity immediately to keep students from being injured or harmed.

In addition to the physical safety concerns, Benicia Unified School District strongly advocates for respect for all individuals, regardless of race, place of origin, sexual orientation, or disability. A game such as “La Migra” causes harm, both physical and emotional, to members of our community.

We urge every family to discuss this event, use this as an opportunity for education and understanding, and help us put an end to this game in our community.  In a city that has been nominated as a Be Kind city, continuing “La Migra” is counter-productive to this goal.


SEE ALSO

Vacaville opinion on local police reform – good questions for all Solano cities

[BenIndy editor: “Defunding” police can mean different things to different people.  I don’t necessarily agree with Mr. Hunt’s opening statement here, but he goes on to raise important questions that should be addressed here in Benicia.  – R.S.]

Solano Voices: Time to discuss police priorities

, by Curtis Hunt, July 5, 2020

But, we can and should have serious conversations about police reform, militarization and training of officers and the influence public safety unions have on local elections and city councils. We can and should have a discussion about the role of police in combating social issues.

First, we need to challenge the concept that “hiring more police will reduce crime.” Comprehensive crime reduction has three components: prevention, intervention and suppression. 

Second, we can and should have a discussion on the influence of public safety unions on local councils. The public safety unions are very powerful locally and in Sacramento. They offer local candidates campaign support both financially and more importantly with “boots on the ground.” I ran two successful campaigns, one with their support and one without. The one with their support was more enjoyable.

Third, we can and should have a conversation on skyrocketing costs. Some city budgets contribute up to 80% of their total revenue to police and fire departments. The Sacramento police chief recently commented, “We are down 100 cops.“ The follow up question then becomes, “Why is your budget two times higher than it was five years ago?”

Pension benefits, retired health care and incentive pays are exceeding the revenue-generation capacities of local governments. We are paying more and getting less. This is not sustainable.

Increased pension, health care and salaries prevent cities from hiring more personnel. It is time to ask some serious questions. We  need to have an open, respectful conversation.

Fourth, we should have a conversation about the local sales taxes. Promises made, promises broken. Measure M and Measure P pay salary and benefits for police and fire. When Measure M was passed, the first expense was to hire 11 more police officers at end of budget hearings. At this point cities really have no choice. Cites need to use the local sales tax revenue to fund the personnel. Vacaville will defer capital projects, but the results will be the same as these are all ongoing cost.

We can and should have a conversation about increasing the funding for the prevention and intervention aspect of public safety. We should consider a reduction of salary and benefits, and instead support prevention programs. We should consider supporting PAL, The Leaven, The Boys and Girls Club and other evidence-based after-school programs. We need to increase the Parks and Recreation budget to have affordable after-school programs for working parents. We should target gang prevention efforts, mentoring programs. We should look at job development job — training programs operated in challenging neighborhoods. Cities might explore incentives for local businesses to accept training positions.  

I know the police officers are empathetic and compassionate in their effort to address homelessness. But they are not selected, trained or educated in that area. We should have a multidisciplinary team with only one officer and the remaining positions filled with social workers, VA specialists, mental health workers and housing specialists. We should explore the increased use of family support workers for domestic violence. We should use community service officers for more routine calls.

I know this is not an easy conversation. When you bring this up, you get, “You are either with us, or you are  against us” as a response. Mere mention of any discussion would result in “Man, you don’t like cops.” That approach to the issue didn’t work. We need to heal and the only way to do that is start with an open and honest dialogue.

Don’t defund! Talk and make a plan for a more inclusive, comprehensive approach with prevention and intervention strategies.

Curtis Hunt worked for 15 years as a probation officer and provided counseling for delinquent offenders. He finished his career at Solano County managing a countywide prevention program. He severed six years on the Community Services Commission and 12 years on the Vacaville City Council.