Though now postponed until later this month, Catch an Illegal Immigrant Day has already gathered more than its share of attention. The planned stunt has attracted even the focus of the Michigan Student Assembly, which passed a resolution condemning it last Tuesday. The event’s backers claim that they’re merely trying to start dialogue about illegal immigration. But because the stunt is more inflammatory and intolerant than substantial, it will bring anything but the type of discussion this issue needs.
The event – sponsored by the University chapter of the far-right Young Americans for Freedom – is a contest in which participants try to catch a volunteer dressed as an illegal immigrant for a chance at a $200 cash prize. Though the chair of YAF claims that the “illegal immigrant” will not represent any ethnic group, the event’s oversimplification of such a complex issue makes it understandable why this event has generated such concern.
By turning what should be an intelligent discussion regarding comprehensive policy reforms into a game of tag with overtones of racism, YAF is oversimplifying a frightfully complicated issue and wasting an opportunity to make a serious statement about the shortcomings of the nation’s current immigration policy. It may be easy for privileged college students to make light of issues that they read about in the newspaper but which they have not internalized their whole lives. Certainly YAF has the right to hold an event that may alienate students who are international, from immigrant families or from an ethnic minority. Indeed, the argument that YAF should abandon the event simply due to its potential to make some students feel unwelcome smacks of the type of liberal intolerance toward opposing views that the group likes to skewer.
But if YAF’s goal really is to create dialogue, it’s hard to see how holding an event many perceive as bigoted will help. YAF chair Andrew Boyd said that his organization chose to hold the event in part because “as many people need to be educated about this as possible.” But the “education” generated by this event will have little to do with immigration reform – and will likely further polarize two sides already divided on immigration.
Catch an Illegal Immigrant Day has a tremendous amount of shock value, but its potential to offend undermines the potency of the shock it does have. Efforts that rely so exclusively on jolting audiences often resonate only with those who are already sympathetic. Those who are bothered by the event will see in YAF’s intentions only xenophobia and intolerance. YAF and its supporters, in turn, will view the backlash as further evidence that American society has become too politically correct.
The event does open an opportunity for other politically oriented groups to pick up the slack. The College Republicans – who have tried to distance themselves from YAF’s antics – and the College Democrats should seize the opportunity for facilitating constructive debate. Though immigration reform is needed, an inflammatory and insensitive stunt is unnecessary in the already contentious debate over immigration. Catch an Illegal Immigrant Day is offensive for many reasons – not least of which is that it serves mainly to waste the public’s time.