In a 2019 article, Mexican sociologist Amarela Varela Huerta wrote that Mexico is no longer simply a vertical border but a bottleneck in which a multitude of migrants are geographically and bureaucratically stuck. Whether in journalistic or academic discourses, it’s rare to see Central American asylum seekers, Mexican nationals displaced by drug war violence, and deportees from the US considered alongside one another. But Varela Huerta argues that these discrete groups are all part of a single system of forced displacement in the Americas, one that is creating new “legal, semi-legal, and illegal forms of managing human movement,” along with various intersecting humanitarian crises.
Border Hacker is perhaps the first nonfiction narrative book that illustrates this phenomenon from a ground-level perspective. It opens in the spring of 2015, when the author, Levi Vonk—then a 24-year-old American on a Fulbright scholarship who plans to become an anthropologist—travels to a migrant shelter in the south of Mexico to ingratiate himself with its director, a famous priest and migration advocate. The priest is absent, so Vonk instead falls in with the organizers of the Viacrucis Migrante, one of the early migrant caravans through Mexico. They round up 72 migrants from the shelters on the Guatemala-Mexico border and set off on foot.
A few days in, someone stops Vonk on the street in Chahuites, Oaxaca. He speaks fluent English that mixes American slang with his own idiosyncratic turns of phrase. “You wanna know why I believe you ain’t a cop?” he asks Vonk, after jokingly accusing him of being a DEA agent. “’Cause you really believe you ain’t in danger, dummy.”
This person is Axel Kirschner, the book’s titular border hacker. Kirschner is a Guatemalan-born deportee who has joined the Viacrucis Migrante in hopes of returning to his Long Island hometown in New York state, where he was brought to live when he was just 1. The two become fast friends, and their friendship is one of the book’s two main arcs.
The story of a New Yorker in all but citizenship traveling with a migrant caravan to get back home situates Border Hacker squarely in the era of rapidly changing immigration policies during Barack Obama’s presidency. Vonk describes how the emergence of migrant caravans was a byproduct of the Southern Border Program, a July 2014 agreement between the administrations of Obama and former Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto, in which the United States funded an increase in Mexican immigration enforcement aimed at stemming the arrival of asylum seekers to the US southern border. In particular, the Obama administration hoped to avoid the terrible optics of turning away unaccompanied minors.
Though the details of Mexican border enforcement have changed over time, the Southern Border Program continues to shape policing in Mexico today. Varela Huerta writes that the program “used legal, humanitarian jargon of guaranteeing migrants’ human rights to instead detain, incarcerate, and deport Central American migrants from Mexican territory.” Vonk offers a firsthand description of the process:
Nearly overnight, a quasi-army of immigration agents, federal police, and soldiers descended upon southern Mexico. They came in fleets of souped-up four-wheel-drive vehicles with machine guns mounted on the roof. Scores of new mobile immigration checkpoints appeared out of thin air.
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One of the ways the program quickly affected migrants was that, because of the increased enforcement, they could no longer ride “the Beast,” the northward-running freight train that, while dangerous, swiftly carried migrants all the way to the US border. With the train now off the table, the migrant caravans’ safety-in-numbers approach, modeled on religious pilgrimages, was born.
At the same time that the Southern Border Program transformed migrant routes across Mexico, the Obama administration also vastly increased deportations and linked local policing in the United States to immigration enforcement, meaning that deportations could stem from offenses as minor as traffic violations. (Kirschner narrates a clearer explanation of “voluntary departure”—an alternative to deportation in which individuals can end the removal proceedings against them by agreeing to leave the US on their own, rather than being transported by ICE—than many academics studying migration can offer.) When Kirschner joins a migrant caravan to return to the US, those northward and southward flows collide.
On top of being deported, Kirschner had also fallen through the cracks of the Guatemalan bureaucracy. Upon returning to their country of citizenship, many deportees who have spent a long period of time away from it face significant bureaucratic challenges in obtaining identity documents. Kirschner found himself confronted by utter administrative failure: He learned that, years earlier, a hurricane had destroyed the archive that contained his birth certificate, and no official was willing or able to figure out how to get him a new one. Lacking documentation made it impossible, in turn, for Kirschner to obtain a visa in Mexico, even as other members of the caravan managed to do so. This kept him stuck in the makeshift system of migrant shelters and humanitarian organizations that at the time were cropping up to meet the demand in Mexico, often without resources or oversight.
Kirschner’s experience in the dark corners of Mexico’s so-called “humanitarian border” provides Border Hacker’s second major arc: Vonk and Kirschner’s unspooling of the corruption within this humanitarian sector. As the two friends traverse the migrant trail, they observe injustices committed not only by the Mexican state and its immigration agents but also by supposed human rights advocates, in shelters and at legal aid organizations. Just as forcing migration to become more clandestine has created new markets for smugglers, making the route more challenging has put migrants in the position of accepting whatever help they can get.
While its observations are clear-eyed, Border Hacker’s shortcoming, to my mind, is its us-against-the-world framing. Vonk writes in the preface that Border Hacker is the story of “a down-and-out deportee with little formal education and no resources” who uncovered “systemic corruption when no one else could.” The aspects of migration the book details can only be understood, he suggests, through a hero’s journey—and it’s clear who the heroes are. But this lends the book an unfortunate willingness to dismiss others that is at odds with the necessarily collaborative efforts of fighting border militarization and aiding migrants.
One way this plays out is that Vonk frames almost every NGO worker and immigration lawyer he encounters as either self-interested or naive. “Listen,” he snaps at one US-based migration NGO worker toward the end of the book. “Have you ever actually lived in Mexico before? Or traveled with migrants?”
But instead of convincing readers of his superior knowledge of the realities of Mexico relative to out-of-touch humanitarian bureaucrats, Vonk’s pattern of discounting others reveals its own forms of naivete. While the experiences he details are meticulously and grippingly recounted, most of them also take place over a matter of months; surely, some of the scores of journalists and humanitarian NGO workers—especially the Mexican nationals who have remained committed to their work despite precarious salaries and even persecution—have made some of the same observations, and learned some of the same lessons, that Vonk believes he and Kirschner are alone in witnessing.
By seeing the humanitarian workers around him as uninformed, Vonk fails to comprehend the scale of compromise required to work in a morally bereft system, even for those who have good intentions. This is clearest in his characterization of the woman he calls “the Attorney,” whom Vonk depicts as self-interested based on rumors and the visible markers of her wealth. (Sometimes this depiction is tendentious: In one scene, he finds her “outside an immigration office in Polanco, one of the fanciest neighborhoods in Mexico City.” Yet this is simply where Mexico’s National Institute of Migration is located; there’s nowhere else to process a visa.) When Vonk expresses his growing frustrations with the Attorney and the way she stumbles through the bureaucratic maze (she can’t obtain a visa for Kirschner thanks to his birth certificate conundrum, and she also tries but fails to find him housing), the Attorney replies exasperatedly, “Welcome to Mexico.” But even by the end of the book, Vonk never quite seems to grasp that things work differently from the way his rigid sense of justice would have them.
Seeing these limitations in Vonk’s framing led me to question the book’s estimation of the importance of its allegations. Vonk’s highest-level critique is of Father Alejandro Solalinde, the priest who operates the migrant shelter Hermanos en el Camino. Solalinde’s stature within Mexican civil society is such that he was nominated by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador to lead the country’s National Human Rights Commission (though Mexico’s laws separating church and state prevented this from coming to pass). Vonk critiques Solalinde’s shifty, social-climbing politics and the way he turns a blind eye to the immoral activities of the company he keeps—particularly Armando Vilchis, another of the book’s villains, who operates a shelter on the periphery of Mexico City that is nothing more than a mechanic’s shop where migrants are expected to sleep on the bench seats of old cars and are locked in at night.
In a recent podcast with journalist Todd Miller, Vonk likened Solalinde’s importance in Mexico to that of Martin Luther King Jr., stating that if the information contained in Border Hacker were to reach Mexican audiences, it would be “the biggest human rights scandal in however many years in Mexico.” In the book, he also recounts a scene in which a journalist—he doesn’t say whether Mexican or American—encourages him and Kirschner to write this book, saying that Mexican journalists “would never be able to break a story about someone as powerful as Solalinde themselves.”
Beyond the indignation I felt on behalf of Mexican journalists, I bristled at the grandiose scale of Vonk’s notions of the scandal that the book would create. It seems probable to me that to Mexican readers familiar with corruption among authorities—especially priests—the types of abuse of power chronicled in Border Hacker will not come as a surprise. (“Welcome to Mexico,” indeed.)
This is not to say that I don’t think the book poses important political stakes. Rather, to my mind, the importance of Border Hacker is not in its allegations of activists’ wrongdoing but in its illustration of the material and bureaucratic challenges of moving through Mexico, which incentivize all sorts of grift. The villains of the book are the opportunistic, emergent symptoms of a bad system, like the smugglers on whom the US media is so quick to blame migrant deaths.
The US and Mexican states are implicated in violence against migrants through the way they use a sleight of hand to redirect blame to others—to smugglers, to cartels, to the Sonoran Desert, to the suburban mechanic who wants to get his name in the paper. But we should not lose sight of the politicians and migration agencies whose policy-making is responsible for the corruption and danger so present in migrants’ journeys. Border Hacker offers its readers a glimpse of how the ever-increasing militarization of the border shapes the lives of migrants—materially, bureaucratically, and interpersonally. But I want to read the version of that story that builds on the work of others, rather than one that believes itself to be unique in its critical inquiry.
Correction: A previous version of this article did not specify that most of the experiences in the book took place over the course of months. This has been clarified.