School Days

How a Game of Tag Turned a Texas Campus Into Immigration’s Ground Zero

A provocative game called ‘Catch an Illegal Immigrant’ turned the University of Texas at Austin into a hotbed of debate this week. Even Ugly Betty joined the fray.

Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman via AP

The game was canceled, but the protest went on anyway.

By early afternoon on Wednesday, some 500 students had gathered on the steps of the main building of The University of Texas at Austin—chanting, holding signs, and wearing t-shirts with a single word stamped across them: undocumented. As Ugly Betty actress America Ferrera took the stage at 12:30, even the Frisbee-playing students on a nearby lawn joined in. “I am the daughter of immigrants,” Ferrera shouted into a megaphone, and the crowd, some holding fluorescent signs reading “Aliens Live in Space,” erupted into applause.

The rally—the culmination of days of heated campus-wide debate—came in response to a controversial event planned by the college chapter of The Young Conservatives of Texas, or YCT, which describes itself as a non-partisan, conservative youth organization.

On Monday, YCT created a Facebook event detailing a game titled “Catch an Illegal Immigrant.” The premise of the game—set to take place Wednesday—was that some members of the organization would walk around campus labeled as illegal immigrants. “Any UT student who catches one of these ‘illegal immigrants’ and brings them back to our table will receive a $25 gift card,” the event listing read. “The purpose of this event is to spark a campus-wide discussion about the issue of illegal immigration and how it affects our everyday lives.”

The proposed game followed an earlier incident in September where the same group held a bake sale by charging students different prices for baked goods as an exemplification of affirmative action. Latino students were charged $1 for brownies while white students were charged $2.

This time, the backlash was swift. The same day the Facebook invitations went out, an outreach group called University Leadership Initiative staged a walk through campus to protest. Seeking a larger resistance movement, the ULI held a meeting Monday night to plan a rally to take place the same day as the YCT game. “We want to be able to spread the word that immigration is something that is difficult, and painful, and reality for 11 million people in this country,” said Diana Morales, an undocumented junior and the president of the group. “YCT was trying to play with our lives.”

Administration officials were to quick to join the outcry. First was Gregory J. Vincent, the Vice President for Diversity and Community Engagement, who said YCT was “contributing to an environment of exclusion and disrespect among our students, faculty and staff by sending a message that certain students do not belong on our campus.” Bill Powers, president of the college, released a statement saying, “The proposed Young Conservatives of Texas event is completely out of line with the values we espouse at The University of Texas at Austin.”

“I was just amazed. I never thought they would actually do something like this,” said Maria E. Ponce, a campus senior and the co-director of University Relations for the Latino Leadership Council.

On Tuesday, despite some outside support—namely U.S. Rep. Steve Stockman, who said in a statement that YCT should be “commended for standing up…against the lawlessness of ludicrous liberalism”—YCT caved. President Lorenzo Garcia released a statement cancelling the event out of members’ concern that “the university will retaliate against them and that the protest against the event could create a safety issue for our volunteers.” (The group could not be reached for comment for this article.)

Still, the proposed event had already grabbed national headlines, even drawing a response from the state’s gubernatorial candidates. So the ULI forged ahead with its counter-protest, and students from across the state of Texas came to join them from Rice University, Texas A&M, and Southern Methodist University.

“This goes beyond freedom of speech,” Ponce said. “This goes to the safety and comfort of students on this campus. That’s why we decided to have this event.”

Raymond Jose, an organizer for the rally, took the megaphone after Ferrera and began by inviting conversation with YCT about immigration and immigration reform. “Up! Up with education! Down! Down with deportation,” the crowd chanted back. Two women stood on the steps to read poems they had written about living as minorities in Texas.

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As the second poet cried through her story, Jose leaned over. “These students all care,” he said. “I’ve been organizing all over and by far this college has given the most support.”

Ferrera came back out as the event closed to lead the dwindling group in Cesar Chavez’s famous “si se puede” chant. Students raised their hands along with the chant, make the UT “hook’em horns” sign.

“YCT come get me,” they chanted until the crowd began to dissolve.