HOUSTON -- A conservative student group that sparked controversy with plans to stage a "Catch an Illegal Immigrant" game at the University of Texas at Austin has canceled the event under mounting pressure from critics.
The Young Conservatives of Texas chapter at the university planned to play the game Wednesday. The object of the game was for students on campus to try to catch club members wearing “illegal immigrant” signs, then turn them in to the Young Conservatives' recruiting table in exchange for $25 gift certificates.
“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,” said a statement posted by the conservative group's chairman, Lorenzo Garcia on Monday.
In September, the group hosted a bake sale for which customers were charged different prices depending on their race.
University officials condemned the game.
“Such tactics are inflammatory and demeaning. And once again in trying to be provocative, the YCT is contributing to an environment of exclusion and disrespect among our students, faculty and staff by sending the message that certain students do not belong on our campus,” said the university’s vice president for diversity and community engagement, Gregory J. Vincent, in a statement.
Further, game participants would be violating the school’s honor code, he said.
Vincent noted that some University of Texas students are undocumented and allowed by law to attend state universities.
“They are part of a growing diverse population on campus and in the state of Texas — a population that plays increasingly larger roles in our intellectual, economic, political and cultural communities,” he said, adding, “The university also values free speech and our campus continues to be an arena that inspires dialogue from diverse viewpoints. However, it is also meant to be a community where students exhibit respect for each other while holding those viewpoints.”
As a counter-protest to the planned event, a Houston-based ethnic studies activist group had prepared to stage a game of its own.
“It's called ‘You're All Immigrants.’ The descendants of illegal pilgrims are encouraged to pick up their 'illegal immigrant' sign and self-deport to the UT Young Conservatives and auto-collect the $25 rewards,” said a statement from the group, Librotraficantes.
The counter-protest would have drawn an influx of immigrants, said Tony Diaz, founder of Librotraficanctes and director of Mexican American studies at Lone Star College North Harris.
Texas Democratic Party officials also condemned the Young Conservatives' game, noting that Garcia had been a staffer with Republican Texas Atty. Gen. Greg Abbott's gubernatorial campaign.
“This style of hatred and fear is not the type of leadership Texas deserves,” the group said in a statement.
Abbott's Press Secretary, Avdiel Huerta, released a statement to The Times, saying, “Our campaign has no affiliation with this repugnant effort.”
“Illegal immigration and the failed policies of the Obama Administration are not a joking matter,” the statement said.
On Tuesday, Garcia released a statement saying the group had canceled the event, in part due to Vincent’s statement.
“I spoke with our chapter’s members, and they are both concerned that the university will retaliate against them and that the protest against the event could create a safety issue,” Garcia wrote.
He said including gift cards was “misguided” and acknowledged that the game concept was “over the top” but insisted it was designed to draw attention to an important political issue.
Garcia said he was “shocked at the uproar over the event’s premise and at the personal attacks against me,” noting that opponents dismissed him as a “frontman” and an “Uncle Tom,” and sent him obscene email, a response he called “truly disgraceful.”
“Students on college campuses, conservative, liberal, or somewhere in between, should not be silenced when they attempt to make their voices heard about a subject that is so important to our futures,” he wrote.
UT Austin officials responded by reiterating their commitment to free speech.
"The University of Texas at Austin honors the right of free speech for all students. We welcome the Young Conservatives of Texas' decision to cancel Wednesday's event and look forward to the group being part of a thoughtful campus discussion about immigration," officials wrote.
“They caved in,” said Diaz, the ethnic studies activist.
Diaz said his group will continue with plans to travel to Austin, the state capital, and will also visit the university on Wednesday.
“Ironically, we were headed to Austin to demand that the Texas state board of education endorse Mexican American Studies,” Diaz said, “If the UT Young Conservative had taken Mexican American courses, they might be thanking immigrants instead of organizing this game.”
He said the group will still head to the UT Austin campus at noon.
“Instead of a game, we’re just going to say we’re all immigrants,” he told The Times, “This generation right now, we need to prepare them for a multicultural world. The fact that people rose and spoke out against the illegal immigrant game is a hopeful sign.”
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