The “Catch an Illegal Immigrant” Game at the University of Texas at Austin is not just about the students of that university. It implicates everyone who lives in the United States today. Though it can be easily dismissed as political theater or as a publicity stunt, performance and spectacle reveal that, for some, immigration has become trivialized to the level of a “game.” Yet that game plays out in this country every single day with very real winners and losers.
The stunt isn’t a one-time aberration but a window into a culture of cruelty that treats immigrants like animals to be chased, hunted, and captured. It underscores a privilege that makes it acceptable to make a game out of something that is the literal embodiment of the pain of many communities. It is about the preservation of a campus climate that makes it clear that some people do not belong, were never meant to belong, and do not have the luxury of ever getting too comfortable.
And yes, Young Conservatives of Texas, it is about the performance of a racial anxiety that the United States is changing and the children of the people who have been scrubbing your toilets and trimming your rose bushes also have a claim to this place that for so long you have somehow thought of as yours alone.
And perhaps the most mortifying part of it all is that there is a “prize.” What is particularly shameful about this event is that the Young Conservatives of Texas set up the rules of the game to include a monetary incentive. A cash prize. A fair trade – engage in an act of degradation and walk away with your wallet a little fatter! That pretty much sums it up.
They didn’t mean to offend anyone, they assure us. But guess what, Young Conservatives of Texas? Your “game” does offend me.
Who am I? Like you, I am the graduate of a top, flagship public research university – a three-time graduate of the University of California, Berkeley. Fifteen years ago, I cut my political teeth protesting “ethnic-themed” frat parties and defending my Chicana housemates who had racist slurs hurled at them from College Avenue windows while walking home from class. I am also a former lecturer at U.C. Berkeley. Each Spring I taught there, a racist incident at one of the U.C. campuses cropped up demanding our class time and collective attention – the noose at the U.C. San Diego library, Alexandra Wallace’s racist “Asians in the Library” rant, the notorious Affirmative Action Bake Sale.
And I have also spent the last decade learning from, working with, and researching undocumented college students. Students who have literally risked everything they have to get an education. Students who have slept in parks and the library because there was not enough money to pay rent and to buy school books. Students who work an all-night shift and then show up in class the next morning because it doesn’t make any sense to do the one if you are not going to do the other. These students deserve to attend a university without facing a mockery of their pain and sacrifice.
So yeah, Young Conservatives of Texas, I’m offended.
Those of us who are not at U.T. Austin can sit on the sidelines and shake our heads at the ignorance of students, hoping that they enroll in an Ethnic Studies course, or at least an American History course, and eventually learn how their ahistorical worldview is misguided, nativist, and racist. But we can do more: we can see their little racist performance for what it is – a reflection of the society in which we all live, a snapshot of our historical situation in which people are hunted like animals and traded in for small meaningless rewards. The “Catch an Illegal Immigrant Game” is an inevitable outgrowth of a social, economic, and political context that treats many immigrants as less-than-human, i.e., as “illegal.”
In that sense, the U.T. Austin DREAMers and their allies who put up a fight and shut the event down are also a reflection of the society in which we live: a reflection of the growing number of people who insist that dehumanization is not acceptable, that racism is no joke, and that the world we are fighting for does not have space for the mockery of suffering. They give me hope that we can all do better than this.
Genevieve Negrón-Gonzales is an Assistant Professor in the School of Education at the University of San Francisco.