American Students Role Play What it is Like Being an Immigrant to the U.S.

As then nation gears up for another general election in November, immigration remains a hot-button topic on both sides of the political aisle. While each political party has distinctly different philosophies when it comes to the future of immigration for our nation, the fiery discourse between the two sides, spurred on by the high stakes of an election year, has placed the thousands of immigrants living and working in the United States firmly in the crossfire of public opinion. As the focus of such heated debate, immigrants can often find themselves being “othered,” as a singular mass, instead of the complex community of unique individuals they are. Even voters who profess to support immigration reform can harbor fears and biases towards their friends, neighbors, and coworkers who originally hail from other countries. In an effort to counteract this pervasive xenophobia and foster empathy towards the immigrant community, the University of Arkansas recently created a new program that gave its students firsthand experience with the byzantine legal immigration process – through a role-playing video game.

Devised by Patrick Stewart, Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Arkansas, the game, called Citizenship Quest, debuted in a fall 2018 American national government undergraduate course. The students completed a questionnaire at the beginning of the course that gauged their trust level of immigrants and each then was assigned a character from Mexico, India, or China – the three largest groups of immigrants in America. Next, the students completed an application to adjust status (form I-485) and an application for employment authorization (EAD) for their respective characters, requesting permission to live and work in the U.S. To simulate the visa process as realistically as possible, students submitted a photograph of their hands with the applications, to mimic the fingerprints required by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). After completing the applications, each student filled out the 20-page application for naturalization (form N-400), to simulate the process of applying for U.S. citizenship. The game also includes a form of virtual currency called “coin” that could be earned by completing weekly assignments and spent on advantages, such as an immigration attorney. Coin could also be lost to random events within the game designed to mimic common pitfalls of the immigration process, such as lost or delayed applications.

Of course, “Citizenship Quest” is not a fully realistic depiction of the legal immigration system. Students uploaded all of their application documents to the course website, not to the USCIS, and were not required to submit the thousands of dollars in filing fees that are required for most immigration filings. They also didn’t undergo any of the emotional stress that comes with applying to live and work in the U.S., such as a denied application or mistakenly being identified as a national security threat. And, of course, the students did not have to suffer through years of backlogs that so many actual immigrants face. But student feedback about the game, detailed in a recent issue of The Conversation, an online academic journal, revealed that it successfully conveyed how arduous the process of starting a new life in the U.S. can be. One student noted, “Citizenship Quest [showed] us how in real life there are unexpected factors that occur and cause setbacks…” for immigrants, while another stated that she “… loved the thought process behind the game,” while still recognizing that it was “much easier” than actually applying for a visa. While resolving our national conversation around immigration during one of the most divisive eras in our country’s history is a task far too difficult for any computer game, Citizenship Quest gives us hope that respect and empathy for immigrants can be instilled on the next generation of voters. [See Learn to Trust Immigrants by Role-Playing in Their Shoes by Brandon Bouchillon, The Conversation, 04.Feb.2020.]


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