Category Archives: La Migra

Lionel Largaespada on La Migra: A “Game” vs. Family Values

Sheri Leigh
Sheri Leigh, Benicia resident and educator.

By Sheri Leigh, October 13, 2023

As I mentioned in one of my previous articles, I met with several community leaders about their views on the La Migra “game.” Former Benicia City Council member Lionel Largaespada was one of them. I was particularly interested to hear what he had to say since his family background is Latin American. He agreed that this topic was important enough to meet with me, a stranger, to share our values and ideas. We met one morning at Rrag’s Coffee Shop for a pleasant hour of discussion. While there, nearly everyone who passed us stopped to say hello to Lionel, and it was clear to me he is a well-liked and respected member of our community. 

Former Benicia City Council Member Lionel Largaespada spoke with Sheri Leigh about La Migra. | Photo provided to Vallejo Times-Herald, courtesy of Mr. Largaespada, in 2018.

Former Council Member Lionel Largaespada is very familiar with the challenges of being from an immigrant family. His father is from Nicaragua, his mother is from El Salvador, his step-mother is from Cuba, and his step-father is also from Nicaragua. They all immigrated to the United States as teens, leaving behind countries that offered less opportunities for themselves and their families. His step-father (who immigrated as an adult) studied hard in his adopted country, the United States, and became a doctor.

Mr. Largaespada , the oldest of eight, was born in San Francisco. As a child, he moved around with his family to many other areas of the country, including Omaha, Bensalem (outside of Philadelphia), and Atlantic City. Eventually, his family settled in Hercules, CA, where he completed his public education. 

Mr. Largaespada and his wife moved to Benicia 18 years ago when they were planning to start a family. The schools here had an excellent reputation, the crime statistics were low, and the small-town atmosphere seemed like a good place to raise children. The couple now have two daughters: the younger is a sophomore at Benicia High School, and the older daughter is a Benicia public school alumni now a freshman at Arizona State University. 

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.

Mr. Largaespada first heard about the La Migra “game,” about seven years ago. An upset parent came to a Benicia City Council meeting to express his concern at this racially offensive, unofficial, yet traditional “game” the high school students were playing. The concern of this parent captured Mr. Largaespada’s attention – both as a community leader and as a parent of two young girls.

In Mr. Largaespada’s opinion, the concept of high school upperclassmen versus lowerclassmen is a legacy that has been going on for generations. He respects and honors the fact that the title, La Migra, and the simulation of an immigration raid can be triggering and racially offensive, particularly to those who have experienced or been threatened by immigration operations.

However, this is not what bothers Mr. Largaespada the most. What concerns Mr. Largaespada most is the evident disconnect between parents or guardians and the young people who choose to get involved in this game. 

In the matter of raising children, Mr. Largaespada is a strong advocate for teaching respect for others and oneself, and teaching kindness. Words and actions matter. The mimicry of the very painful and sometimes brutal chasing and apprehending of immigrants by ICE agents steps beyond the boundaries of decency. In his opinion, the parents and guardians of the students playing the “game” don’t know where their children are that evening, what they are doing, or are completely unaware of the details and impacts of the game being played.

Some Benicia High School students have taken action against the game, posting warnings to discourage peers from participating. | This image is a still from a 2023 NBC Bay Area report.

Mr. Largaespada feels strongly that words matter, and calling something La Migra, which incites fear on one end and domination on the other, is not respectful, compassionate, or kind. There should be no place for the violence, verbal assault, or recklessness this game incites among our youths. Mr. Largaespada also believes that parents should be held accountable for their children’s behavior. He would support a mandated sensitivity training for the student apprehended while engaged in the game . . . AND he would support the same training for their families. If parents and guardians maintain a loving and disciplined relationship with their children, teaching them strong values, establishing clear boundaries, and maintaining good communication, Mr. Largaespada believes that the La Migra game would not have a place in this community or anywhere. 

As his own girls approached high school, Mr. Largaespada and his wife had some very serious conversations with them about what behaviors they expected of their children. There would be no tolerance of any disrespect of any kind – no vandalism, no deliberate miscommunication or evasiveness, no bullying, AND no involvement in the La Migra “game.” They were instructed to watch out for their friends as well. If a friend or acquaintance was getting involved with bad behavior of any type, the Largaespada girls were to try to neutralize things or walk away. And they did. 

We all have a part in making Benicia welcoming, inclusive and safe. And for many, it feels that way. For the most part, our community is made up of caring individuals who elect responsive and caring leaders. But it should feel that way for all of us, regardless of age, gender, color of skin, religion, political leanings, abilities, and anything else that makes us unique. Parents and guardians play a huge role in shaping the behavior and values of our children. And our children grow up to become members of a community contributing to the overall community in which they reside – for better or for worse. 

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.)

La Migra: Our Leaders United

Sheri Leigh
Sheri Leigh, Benicia resident and educator.

By Sheri Leigh, October 13, 2023

I wanted to get a feel for where Benicia’s elected officials stood on the issue of the La Migra game. I met with Benicia Mayor Steve Young and Vice-Mayor Terry Scott together one afternoon in Mayor Young’s office at City Hall. I spoke to City Council member Kari Birdseye, whom you have already read about. Over the last few weeks, I interviewed three  more Benicia officials (past and present) – Benicia Unified School District (BUSD) Board Trustee Amy Hirsh and former Benicia Council Member Lionel Largespada at Rrag’s Coffee Shop (at separate times), and BUSD Board Chair Sheri Zada, who graciously offered her home as our meeting point. If you know your politics, you know that the policies and principles of some of these individuals are more conservative, and some more liberal. Their platforms are sometimes polar opposites. However, it is clear to me that all of them care deeply about this community. All of them were pleased to share their perspective with me, and all of them were very concerned about the impacts of the La Migra game on our public safety, on our young people, and on the racist implications of the game. I was impressed! The question now is what can our community leaders do to help our young people make better decisions?

Benicia Mayor Steve Young remembers first hearing about the La Migra game about two and a half years ago, when there was a news report citing its controversial nature. Vice-Mayor Terry Scott had a more recent indoctrination, learning about the game when a town hall meeting was called in late spring of 2022, after a particularly brutal, La Migra game–related harassment event occurred involving a truck full of junior and senior high school students and two non-participating and unaware young people. Both the mayor (who was in office at the time) and the vice-mayor (who was not yet in office) were present at the town hall in question and both are greatly concerned about the impact of the game.

When I talked about the need for more opportunities for young people to have outlets for their energy and creativity, they agreed. Vice-Mayor Scott talked about a challenge his small childhood town faced years ago when teens were stealing family pumpkins from porches and smashing them before and during Halloween, and how the town responded by creating a seasonal pumpkin smashing game – intentionally adjusting the focus from seasonal vandalism to healthy competition.

Although the La Migra “game” targets individuals rather than pumpkins, in both situations teens are seeking adventure, and some become the perpetrators of harm as they do so. Can we find a similar solution for Benicia?

We talked about expanding community awareness and cultural celebration, particularly for the Latinos who make up a significant portion (~13%) of our population. They were open, and even enthusiastic, about the possibilities. Both agreed that there are very few City-sponsored cultural events, and those that we do have, such as Benicia Black Lives Matter’s Annual Juneteenth Festival and Benicia Performing Arts Foundation’s Diversity Festival, exist mostly due to the tireless efforts of organizations operating with volunteer support and community funding.

We could certainly do more.

At one point in the conversation, Mayor Young asked me pointedly, “If there was no racist component to this game, would you still be passionate about it?”

It only took me a moment to respond. Yes, the racial implications are offensive and particularly triggering to certain groups of people, but there is a lot more at stake. Among other issues, the game invokes hazing and bullying. Individual and public safety is at great risk. Mayor Young agreed.

Our discussion closed with ideas, opportunities, and commitments. Mayor Young and Vice-Mayor Scott intend to follow up with more public communication as the game’s date draws nearer, and be open to alternative cultural celebrations to proactively provide opportunities for appreciating, participating in, and understanding the traditions and values of our Mexican and Latin American friends, families, and fellow residents.

Both BUSD Board trustees Sheri Zada and Amy Hirsh were quite aligned in their opinions, even though I interviewed them separately. They believe the school district, although legally unable to take disciplinary action against students participating in the games, has a responsibility to introduce and educate students about racial sensitivity and cultural awareness. They agree that the families in this district should be made aware of the game through school channels and learn how it impacts our community.

They both strongly support the efforts of BUSD Superintendent Damon Wright to diminish the game’s power by working in tandem with the police and other City agencies, educating and empowering school staff, informing school district families of the game’s dangers (multiple times!), enlisting the aid of the students who understand the potential harm, and personally attempting to discourage students from participating.

When I suggested that the schools could possibly do more to educate the students about the challenges of modern day immigration and to offer more opportunities for young people to develop a sense of community and purpose, both Chair Zada and Trustee Hirsh committed themselves to take a closer look at the curriculum and do what they could to expand discussion on this topic.

When I interviewed Lional Largespada, former City Council member, I learned that he is a first-generation American from a family of Latin Americans. He offered strong opinions about how damaging this game is to our community. His perspective is more focused on family values and the role families play in shaping the activities of our children. Because I haven’t yet fully covered that perspective, I will be dedicating an entire upcoming article to my interview with former Council Member Largespada.

I am very grateful to report that we have a strong contingency of leaders in this community who care about public safety, underlying and blatant racism, diversity, and treating one another with respect and kindness. They are mobilizing to find solutions to fill the gaps in our community activities and education that will inspire more sensitivity, awareness, and most importantly, respect and concern for one another. The response of our leaders to this particular concern of the La Migra game”restores my faith in the commitment of those elected and the potential of our local government to resolve the endless challenges that threaten the well-being of our community.

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.)

It’s been almost 20 weeks since Sheri Leigh first wrote about Benicia’s ‘La Migra’ games. What have we learned, and what’s next?

Sheri Leigh on what she’s learned about La Migra so far, and where we may want to go next

Sheri Leigh
Sheri Leigh, Benicia resident and educator.

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 Benicia High School students have taken action against the game, posting warnings to discourage peers from participating. | This image is a still from a 2023 NBC Bay Area report.

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.

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.

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. 

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

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. 

Dr. Damon Wright, Benicia Unified School District Superintendent. | Photo from BUSD Press Release.
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.







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. 

Some Benicia youth participate in the game for a fun physical challenge. | This image is a still from a 2018 KBCW broadcast and has been blurred to protect child privacy.

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. 

Events and programs honoring Mexico’s rich cultural heritage are relatively rare in Benicia. | Photo by Fili Santillán on Unsplash

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. 

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.)

‘La Migra’ – It’s Everyone’s Issue!

Sheri Leigh speaks with Benicia City Council Member Kari Birdseye for a City – and Parent – Perspective

Sheri Leigh
Sheri Leigh, Benicia resident and educator.

This is the perspective of Benicia City Council Member Kari Birdseye, a 23-year Benicia resident and parent of two Benicia public school alumni.  As an elected official and a full-time communications manager for a non-profit environmental organization, Kari is a busy woman.  I ran into her at a recent Benicia Arts Council event and was grateful that she was willing to give me her perspective on the La Migra Games.  We had a very informative phone conversation between her work-related engagements.  

Benicia City Council Member, 23-year Benicia resident, and parent of two speaks to Sheri Leigh about ‘La Migra.’ | Photo from Kari Birdseye’s 2022 Campaign.

Benicia City Council Member Kari Birdseye and the other members of the Benicia City Council stand together with the Benicia police and the Benicia Unified School District (BUSD) on the matter of the student-orchestrated, traditional annual chase game they call La Migra.  Recognizing the racist overtone that is self-evident in the title of the game, the potential physical and emotional harm to individuals, and the ongoing threat to public safety, they want the games stopped – permanently.  This year, City Council and staff publicly acknowledged that this is a community issue that affects everyone in Benicia and teamed up with other municipal stakeholders.  

Ms. Birdseye is proud of the efforts that took place between City Hall, the police, and the school district this last year.  All three agencies worked together to notify the public about the upcoming game, sending out emails and issuing warning notices on their websites, in local news publications, and on social media pages.  The school district actively reached out to BUSD parents to educate them about the dangers of the game, urging them not to allow their children to participate.  Student leaders also urged their classmates to stay away from the games and out of trouble. The police department put extra patrols on duty on the night that was selected for the game.  

Click to enlarge. On March 29, 2023, BUSD issued a warning to parents and families of students that the game was imminent, describing its rules and warning of the potential physical and emotional harm.

According to Council Member Birdseye, the coordinated agency efforts made some impact: student participation was down from the previous year.  Over the course of the evening, police ‘apprehended’ dozens of students, keeping them at the station until they were safely remanded to parent or guardian custody.  When parents and guardians arrived at the station, they were provided with information about the game and warned to be more cautious about and aware of their children’s activities.  

The La Migra “games” has been going on for decades. They were happening when Ms. Birdseye’s children were in high school, and they vividly recall the experience.  Her daughter, who graduated in 2017, was (and still is) a social-justice warrior.  She was offended by La Migra games as a high school freshman, immediately seeing the racial harm.  Ms. Birdseye’s daughter actively advocated to her friends and classmates NOT to participate, continuing her efforts throughout her high school years.  She is now pursuing her Master’s degree in Education at San Francisco State.  

Some Benicia High School students have taken action against the game, posting warnings to discourage peers from participating. | This image is a still from a 2023 NBC Bay Area report.

Ms. Birdseye believes that the underclassmen are highly influenced by their desire to fit in.  They might not yet understand the harm or the danger of the game.  It’s the seniors, she feels, who should know better.  They are deliberately choosing to be in the role of pursuer, emulating and perpetuating a painful history, in effect weaponizing that history against our community’s Latino citizens and immigrants, and against those who are most vulnerable in our society.   

The work that the municipal agencies have begun towards dismantling this damaging tradition is just the beginning.  Ms. Birdseye assured me that each of the agencies, City government, police and the school district, are committed to maintaining their efforts to curtail the La Migra games.

But this is not just an agency problem.  We are all affected by this issue.