On Wednesday, actress America Ferrera led a solidarity march with hundreds of pro-immigration activist groups at the University of Texas at Austin to to protest against a scheduled game called “Catch an illegal immigrant” which prompted heavy criticism. The event’s organizers — the Young Conservative of Texas chapter at UT Austin (or YCT) — soon cancelled the event following public outcry and harsh words from school officials. Just a few years ago, universities who initiated the game provoked much less reaction. And escalated outrage at UT Austin reflects changing attitudes about undocumented immigrants.
The concept of the “Catch an illegal immigrant” game is for people to find a person on campus wearing a shirt that reads “illegal immigrant.” After seeking the person out, “winners” can claim a $25 gift card from the YCT. Like many others, Ferrera, a member of the pro-immigration group Voto Latino, said that she found that the game “was disguised as an attempt to have an honest debate about immigration reform … DREAMers aren’t drug haulers. They are scholars, hard workers, and American in EVERY way that I am American.”
The fact that the event caught Ferrera’s attention so quickly shows the progress made in changing the public perception of undocumented immigrants since the game first took place in 2005 at the University of North Texas. At that event, about 40 students showed up to oppose the event. The group’s adviser, Dr. Steve Forde said that he hadn’t been consulted, but that “he would have been out of line to tell them not to do it anyway.” Between 2006 and 2007, the game took place at the Michigan State University, the University of Michigan, New York University, and the University of Iowa. NYU’s President John Sexton only issued a critical statement after the game took place. He said, “we rejected the calls … asking us to prevent the College Republicans’ event from going forward on campus. They held their event, and others who objected to their ‘game’ came together to protest it, and each side had the opportunity to make their views well known publicly.”
Which brings us to the latest rendition on Wednesday — by end of the day Monday, UT Austin President Bill Powers and Vice President for Diversity and Community Engagement Dr. Gregory J. Vincent swiftly issued statements before the event happened. They said that the YCT would be “willfully ignoring the honor code and contributing to the degradation of our campus culture.” Even Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott (R) distanced himself in a statement. YCT organizer Lorenza Garcia, who worked for Abbott as a campaign staffer, canceled the event on Tuesday. By Wednesday, the Facebook page for both the UT Austin YCT chapter as well as the event page had been removed.
At the same time, immigrants across the United States posted solidarity photos on a Facebook event page dedicated to organizing Wednesday’s pro-immigration event. And more than 4,100 people signed a change.org petition requesting the removal of YCT as a student organization.
According to the now-deleted Facebook page, Garcia’s goal in creating the game was to “spark a campus-wide discussion about the issue of illegal immigration.” The pro-immigration rally, which drew numerous undocumented immigrant speakers sparked not just a discussion, but is likely to lead the way in showing how the simple reduction of millions of people to caricatures is no longer tolerable. And that belief is also reflected in the changing acceptance of undocumented immigrants. In 2005, “a plurality said that immigration weakened the nation.” In 2013, 54 percent of Americans support a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. And it’s only in recent months that immigration activists have been successful in getting some newspapers to to limit the use of the derogatory term “illegal immigrant.”