Immigration Simulations: A Replicable Model

CRS Student Ambassadors at three East Coast universities recently held immigration simulations so that students could experience the hardships that many immigrants go through on their journeys to the United States. La Salle University and Saint Joseph’s University, located in Philadelphia, PA, and Saint John’s University, located in Queens, NY, hosted these simulations on their campuses for participants to learn on a more personal level what being an immigrant is like.

The simulations were based on Cabrini College’s model, which was created in 2013 by their CRS Student Ambassador Chapter, and has become a replicable model for schools around the country.

“I think our doing that [creating the model for the Immigration Simulation] has really inspired a group of students from all over the country to start creating their own simulations,” Tom Southard, interim director of the Wolfington Center at Cabrini, said.




How does the simulation work?  At La Salle, for example, students were given money and  a passport, which told them their identity. Once the participants began their journey around the room to and from various tables, they would encounter different officials. Often, those officials would purposefully pretend not to understand the person when they were asking for help. If they were directed to Legal Help, the “officials” there were not able to assist them.



According to an organizer of the event, the process was purposefully meant to be confusing. While participants sat in the waiting room, someone would come around and deliver information, such as a family member dying, thus causing the immigrant to have to go home and begin the journey all over again. Other issues that arose were being robbed and not getting administered the citizenship test, despite being eligible, because the test was only given to a select few people.  

“This event helps students to think about what the immigrant experience might be like,” Amy Czulada, advisor of the La Salle CRS Student Ambassadors, said. “There are so many misconceptions out there about who immigrants are and what they do. People often fail to see the systemic issues that strip people of their humanity during the immigration process. Simulations can be an interesting and interactive way for students to bear witness to injustice.”

Feelings of confusion and frustration were also present in the Saint John’s simulation. In addition to receiving immigrant identities and setting up stations, Saint John’s also included an ICE (representing the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency) Station where “suspicious” immigrants were harshly interrogated.

Some of the questions at the tables included:

  • What is your name?
  • Where are you from?
  • Do you have family in the U.S.?
  • What is your immigration status?
  • Are you a minor?
  • Are you pregnant/do you have any diseases?
  • What is your skill/education level?
  • Do you have a job lined up in the U.S./Is your employer willing to pay for a temporary work visa?



Saint John’s also added a Health Station. Here, anyone who was emigrating from Africa was immediately sent to a quarantined area for Ebola or other diseases. Similar to La Salle’s version, many immigrants were sent to a waiting room; some were granted citizenship, and many others were deported.

For several students, the simulation opened their eyes to the plights of immigrants.

“Many claimed to feel more compassionate towards the plight of the immigrant after having felt some of their emotions through the simulation,” Roxanne De La Torre, advisor for the Saint John’s CRS Student Ambassadors, said.

These simulations also generated increased dialogue among students.“Our conversation at Saint John’s was especially rich because so many of the students here come from ethnically diverse backgrounds and many are immigrants or children of immigrants,” Anna Misleh, student leader at Saint John’s, said.

“By walking in the shoes of an immigrant, our participants were able to understand the stark reality of this issue in our country and learn ways to ‘live their faith in solidarity’ with all those who migrate,” Misleh said.

In general, these types of simulations help students learn about the principles of Catholic Social Teaching as they walk in the shoes of every immigrant who makes that journey. Participating in these simulations leads to an important shift: it becomes less an issue of immigrants and more a realization that we are all part of one human family.

It’s also important that simulations like this don’t stop at walking participants through the reality of immigrants, but that they also bring to light some of the complex causes, or "push factors" of immigration. Although there is much work to be done, CRS programs, such as Youth Build, focus on helping build the skills of youth in countries in Central America. This program addresses one of the major push factors for youth to migrate: gang violence. By participating in the program, youth have an alternative to joining a gang; they can learn a vocational trade, obtain leadership skills, and create a community. When these elements are in place, youth are more likely to be able to stay safe and thrive in their own communities and less likely to have to leave their homes in order to stay alive and have a fulfilling life.

Programs like Youth Build are doing great work, but it’s also important that each and every one of us in the U.S. takes action and sparks the dialogue on the hardships that a person endures when they undertake this journey. Whether or not you’ve participated in an Immigration Simulation, please advocate on behalf of the real people experiencing this process every day. The easiest way to act is to follow this link, which will allow you to raise your voice on behalf of vulnerable children and families by reaching out to your member of Congress via visit, letter, or phone call.

In addition to taking action, we invite you to host your own Immigration Simulation on campus.  You can find the important resources here, and please reach out to with any questions.