Border Hacker Exposes the Chaos and Cruelty of Barack Obama’s Immigration Policy

Despite his pledge to fix the US’s “broken” immigration system, Barack Obama’s punitive policies made life more difficult for migrants — and unleashed untold horrors throughout the hemisphere.

The wall at the US-Mexico border in San Diego, California. (Amyyfory / Wikimedia Commons)

When a US president wants to play sheriff for a news cycle or two, immigration policy tends to be the obvious arena in which to do it. The migrant interdiction regimes established by recent presidential administrations, Republican and Democrat alike, have all served to intensify US-bound migrants’ special vulnerability to exploitation, interception, detention, and death. But each president has accomplished this awful objective through his own preferred mechanisms of control, the rippling effects of which inevitably extend far beyond the US-Mexico border, distorting social relations and entangling millions of lives throughout the hemisphere and indeed the world.

Bill Clinton, for example, sought to harden the border through a series of cartoonishly named special security operations — “Operation Gatekeeper” in California; “Operation Hold the Line” in Texas; “Operation Safeguard” in Arizona — that transformed the spatial trajectory of the migrant trail by pushing migrants into some of the most dangerous landscapes on Earth. George W. Bush established the loathed Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to ensure that the migrant trail would no longer have any dependable end point — even those migrants who managed to reach the United States could expect to be hunted for life.

Famously, Barack Obama strode into office pledging to fix a “broken” immigration system. Responding in large part to the wave of unaccompanied children arriving at the US-Mexico border from Central America, Obama quietly initiated his Programa Frontera Sur, or Southern Border Program, in 2014. Although secretive at the time, Obama’s gambit is now well understood: with the Southern Border Program, the Obama administration effectively outsourced US immigration enforcement to Mexican authorities, who, flush with American cash and armaments, committed themselves to searching out and expelling northbound migrants — especially children — before they could ever reach the US border and exercise their right to request asylum.

Transiting Mexico from Central America was already arduous, but the Southern Border Program forced the whole enterprise of northbound migration underground. Every mundane aspect of the journey, from the purchase of bus tickets to the rental of temporary accommodation to the plotting of overland hiking routes, became ensnared in a twisted system of unknown variables and dangerous incentives that increased migrants’ vulnerability by orders of magnitude. The wide-ranging and catastrophically destructive effects of this policy, not only for Central American migrants but also for Mexico itself, are the subject of Border Hacker — a thrilling, troubling, and wholly unique hybrid of confessional memoir and intrepid reportage, released earlier this year.

Border Hacker is cowritten by Levi Vonk, a journalist and anthropologist from the United States, and Axel Kirschner, a stateless migrant raised in Queens and deported to Guatemala around 2012. Vonk first encountered Kirschner in Mexico, when both men walked with the 2015 Viacrucis Migrante migrant caravan. Vonk was a newly arrived Fulbright scholar, in Mexico to interview, witness, observe. He was present at the caravan’s initiation, having been scooped up by a clique of activists whose intention was to call the Mexican state’s bluff by daring the police to publicly intercept the caravan — and in that way make a spectacle of the then-secretive Programa Frontera Sur.

Kirschner, on the other hand, was already a savvy and experienced border crosser, a veteran of the migrant trail whose skepticism is, at least in these early moments of the book, the perfect foil to Vonk’s academic credulity. He greets the anthropologist in English — he gets his attention by hollering “cracker” on a dusty Oaxaca side street — and instructs the young notetaker, in no uncertain terms, to get his head out of the clouds. This encounter sets in motion the rest of the book, which traces the two men’s years of outlaw collaboration as they scrape and struggle to get Kirschner out of harm’s way and across the border to the United States, where, despite what all relevant authorities say, he undeniably deserves to be.

Together, clawing their way toward the border, Vonk and Kirschner trace the dark edges of a decentralized and rapidly metastasizing infrastructure of self-identified — and self-interested — humanitarians. This network sprawls across the hemisphere, hidden in plain sight. Vonk and Kirschner find themselves entangled in a fearsome web spun by all manner of villains, almost all of whom are deluded or cynical enough to believe themselves to be operating on the side of justice and decency. These include corrupt shelter proprietors who coerce labor from those they’re meant to relieve; social-climbing lawyers with designs on political power; straightforward predators chasing money and sex; and, notably, one nationally renowned priest — all purporting to cherish, protect, and service the needs of migrants.

Border Hacker documents the phenomenon of migrant caravanning in the Americas more ably than any other book to my knowledge. But the caravan is the book’s starting point, not its preoccupation. The book’s real purpose is to shed a rare light on the contradictory, corrosive, and often downright cruel activities of so many of the so-called advocates that operate along the migrant trail.

You Wanna Know the Truth?

There is currently no shortage of books that match Border Hacker‘s basic formula, in which a journalist travels with migrants for the purpose of conarrating their journeys. This year has already seen the release of at least two such books tracing the trans-African and -Asian migrant trails to Europe (Matthieu Aikins’s The Naked Don’t Fear the Water and Sally Hayden’s My Fourth Time, We Drowned). John Washington’s The Dispossessed, released in 2020, traces the struggle of one Salvadoran man to reach the United States and request asylum, even as he is repeatedly swept back toward the place he means to flee. And The Beast, a groundbreaking 2014 book by Salvadoran reporter Oscar Martinez, remains widely read despite the disappearance (thanks to Programa Frontera Sur) of the locomotive-based migration route it describes.

But there is much that sets Border Hacker apart from the pack, not the least of which is its authors’ refreshing and unusual approach to attribution. The methods Vonk and Kirschner innovated to produce and market their story exemplify an insurgent trend in contemporary journalism, one which takes its cues from an ethics more akin to Adrienne Rich’s “politics of location” than the staid neutrality doctrine that continues to structure most narrative nonfiction.

The two friends are more than just collaborators. Reading their interlacing and occasionally sparring voices, it becomes clear that confronting the migrant trail joined Vonk and Kirschner together in a deep and uncommon bond. They are soul mates of a sort — tocayos, as Vonk writes, evoking the Spanish-language term for subjects that, while distinct from one another, are nonetheless tethered together through a shared name. “To convey this relationship with depth,” Vonk elaborates in an author’s note, “it was also necessary to question the borders around what is considered acceptable non-fiction.”

The result of this questioning is Border Hacker’s intensely readable yet polyphonic format, which includes sections narrated in Vonk’s voice alongside sections narrated by Kirschner. Each section, no matter its narrator, is nested in a kind protective refusal — an absolute unwillingness to go on too long, to reveal too much, to satisfy the reader’s appetite for details when to do so would compromise the privacy of someone who matters. This ethics of refusal shines most brilliantly in the book’s final section, an electrifying exercise in swagger narrated by Kirschner that ends, unforgettably, with the lines, “You wanna know the truth? Fuck you.”

To my mind, however, the most important feature distinguishing Border Hacker from its apparent cognates is its uncompromising focus on both local and transnational “humanitarian” organizations. It shines an unfiltered light not only the classed-up machinations of the nonprofit legal-assistance complex but also on the grittier practices of everyday coercion and willful ignorance that structure the migrant trail to the benefit of petty tyrants from Oaxaca to Tamaulipas to Washington, DC. And that’s a story only a collaboration as unlikely as this one could reveal.

The Humanitarian Hustle

If you know anything about Border Hacker, you probably know that it presents some heavy and potentially explosive allegations about at least four self-designated humanitarians, all of whom are public figures to varying degrees. Vonk and Kirschner are unflinching about this, so there’s no sense in my being coy about it here.

Those figures are Father Alejandro Solalinde, a priest and onetime Nobel Peace Prize contender who is now an advisor to Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador; Armando Vilchis, a shelter proprietor and associate of Solalinde who is something of a local power player around the central Mexican city of Toluca; Irineo Mujica, a Mexican-American activist who has coled a number of migrant caravans and is quoted semi-frequently in North American news media; and an affluent Mexico City lawyer, unnamed in the book, with connections to Mexican senator Nestora Salgado.

As the book’s title suggests, Vonk and Kirschner are able to tell these stories because Kirschner is both a migrant and a hacker, which makes him a much sought-after personality among some of the most shadowy players on the migrant trail. Kirschner cut his teeth in the New York City of the 1990s, scraping data from ATMs and raiding the checking accounts of his schoolyard rivals. Decades later, snaking through Mexico from Guatemala, Kirschner finds that his youth has left him with a reservoir of hidden talent. The systems he learned in 1990s America, by now relatively archaic north of the border, still dominate the information technology in use in much of Latin America.

He reveals himself during a tense standoff with the Mexican police. With the pilgrims of the Viacrucis encircled by police vehicles, their cell phones having fallen suddenly useless, Kirschner uses a busted-down laptop to override the police’s signal jammer. The immediate danger is averted — but soon Kirschner finds himself encircled again, this time by humanitarians who see in the trash-talking, question-dodging migrant a potent vehicle for self-advancement.

The most powerful of these humanitarians attempt to enlist Kirschner in their self-interested schemes — whether by flattery, coercion, or force. Over the course of years, Kirschner meets their efforts with his own herculean struggle to shuffle himself free from their control and continue his journey northward. He undertakes this recursive and increasingly dangerous mission with the help of his anthropologist friend, who is by now clear-eyed about the migrant trail and no longer susceptible to the humanitarians’ pretty lies.

Border Hacker offers up plenty of swashbuckling episodes in which the unwashed and ingenious outwit the affluent and incurious. It is riveting and bare-knuckled, populated with chases, jailbreaks, smugglings, narrow escapes. But the stories do more than just entertain. By narrating the backroom dealings of figures like Father Solalinde, Don Armando, and the anonymized attorney, Border Hacker illustrates not only their exasperating hubris but also a peculiar and unsettling species of antipathy — a willful lack of concern for the aspirations of people like Kirschner and a shrewd awareness that, no matter how you treat a migrant, you won’t be held accountable. The thing about migrants is they move on.

At the risk of oversimplifying, the major allegations included in the book are roughly as follows: Father Solalinde projects an image of beatific benevolence but is in fact a smooth operator, intentionally facilitating the bad behavior of his many subordinates in the network of migrant shelters he runs. He tries to enlist Kirschner’s services as a hacker, but Kirschner dodges him, and so the padre retaliates by remanding him to the custody of Armando Vilchis.

Vilchis is an almost cartoonishly malevolent figure, the proprietor of a salvage yard who conscripts migrants into indefinite servitude by dangling the promise of humanitarian visas. Under the Southern Border Program, demand for those visas well outpaced Mexican state capacity; “Don Armando thrived where this bureaucracy failed,” Vonk writes, becoming the patriarch of “a small but lucrative kingdom by branding himself as one of the few individuals who supposedly understood how to grease the gears.” Armando locks Kirschner behind his gate and demands that he hack the bank accounts of regional politicians, so Armando can know when and from whom to solicit cash donations.

The Attorney, a creature of luxury who is lost “outside the little emerald archipelagos” of Mexico City, likewise dangles the possibility of safety and support before Kirschner’s eyes. But this safety never materializes, even as she gets him entangled in a scheme to smuggle cell phones and other goods to an incarcerated Nestora Salgado, soon to become a senator. Irineo Mujica, for his part, shows a persistent sexual interest in young migrant children — something his enablers on both sides of the US-Mexico border studiously ignore.

But Border Hacker is far more than an account of bad behavior committed by some well-connected humanitarians. Its strength is in contextualizing this behavior by demonstrating how US border enforcement — particularly Obama’s Southern Border Program — manufactured the conditions for such casual and pervasive malfeasance to not only go undetected but also to continually replicate itself, to metastasize, ultimately becoming a constitutive element of the migrant trail in the twenty-first century.

As Vonk and Kirschner write, the Southern Border Program “was about more than simply enforcing border laws or deporting migrants en masse.” Rather, “it was about pushing them into the grimiest bars and hidden halfway houses,” places where migrants’ vulnerable status could become so intense, so indelible, as to be permanent, irrevocable, lethal.

A Thousand or a Million Nooses

A moment arrives about two-thirds of the way through Border Hacker that finds Kirschner in Mexico City and Vonk in Washington, DC, both working in the service of lawyers. As Kirschner attempts to disentangle himself from the tentacles of the Attorney, Vonk works as an interpreter and intake interviewer for a DC-based legal nonprofit representing Central American children in their asylum cases.

Again, Vonk is scathing in his assessment of the self-appointed advocates who structure the conditions of possibility for migrants. While the staff attorneys and paralegals are mostly a hardworking and compassionate bunch, the social climbers at the helm of Vonk’s unnamed employer come off as frivolous and self-involved, feckless even in the face of an incoming Donald Trump administration that, from their perspective, represents nothing so much a professional tragedy, a block on their own career ambitions. “I’d wandered into a little provincial capital filled with little provincial people,” Vonk writes of Washington, DC. “If there was ever an occasional shout from a far-off place, it was quickly drowned out by the sound of tinkling glass and measured conversation.”

Although less exhilarating than the road stories, the DC chapters contain some of Border Hacker’s most arresting scenes. In a dingy basement gym, Vonk exercises compulsively, terrified that when it comes time to cross the border with his friend his academic’s body will be their undoing. He becomes miserly and irritable with his loved ones, saving every spare penny to send south to Kirschner. And he witnesses the election of Trump, a president who promises a border regime even crueler than Obama’s. Accosted by a flag-waving band of marauding Trump supporters on election night, he fantasizes of a migrant caravan that could “actually invade,” that might “breach our borders en masse and overwhelm us.”

Vonk understands on a visceral level that in his role as an intake interviewer he too traffics in the transient nature of migrant suffering. His role is to coach children to minimize their own resilience and agency, to narrate the mundane violences of their lives in the quasipornographic style immigration courts demand. “I did this week after week,” Vonk recalls, “wreaking havoc on scores of teary children, and many of them eventually received documents for it.” He soon returns to Mexico, determined to help Kirschner across the border, to finish the journey the tocayos began years earlier.

Near the end of the book, Vonk and Kirschner stand together on the Mexican side of the border wall at nightfall:

We stayed until the sun set and the wall glowed in the eerie yellow haze of the border’s spotlights. . . . I saw it all in a flash. I saw the border stretch itself violently across the entire continent, and then slither into the Gulf of Mexico. I saw it span the Atlantic, snake through the Strait of Gibraltar, and cut the Mediterranean in half. I saw it surge into Turkey and then become confused and turn over on itself, writhing into a giant knot in the Middle East, like a thousand or a million nooses intent on hanging anything that crossed its path.

Chatting in the fading light, Vonk and Kirschner agree that Solalinde is like Obama — a “high priest of the liberal order,” who “talked about peace when it was politically advantageous, and then went quiet when it wasn’t.” Armando Vilchis is like Trump, evil and “genuinely deluded” but “wholly dependent on the elegant foundations laid by his predecessor.” And Joe Biden, like the Attorney, is a man preoccupied with prestige, who “promised the world” but “held those promises in perpetual postponement.”

Border Hacker is a singularly courageous book. Since its publication, the authors have received a stream of death threats. Vonk publishes the threats online, a gesture like leaving a porch light on, in the hopes that the added visibility might discourage those responsible from making good on their macabre promises. And Kirschner, of course, is as intensely vulnerable as an author (or an interview subject) can be — stateless, poor, and hunted on both sides of the border, by state agencies, criminal adversaries, and erstwhile employers. Axel Kirschner is a pseudonym, of course, but a pseudonym does no good for a man whose face and name are well known to those most likely to want him dead.

Where is Axel Kirschner now, you ask?

You wanna know the truth?

Fuck you.