“No One Is There Who Has Somewhere Better to Be”: Talking Migration with Levi Vonk

“The asylum system is a rejection of anything that disrupts American universalism. It’s kicking people out who offer an alternative view of the world.”

You meet a guy like Levi Vonk only once in a blue moon. You read a book like Levi Vonk’s Border Hacker even more infrequently.

Border Hacker is a book about love. It is also a book about the US-Mexico border, Central American migrants, poverty, unconventional kinship, state-sanctioned violence, and pooping in the jungle. Vonk, a writer and an anthropology PhD candidate at UC Berkeley, weaves journalistic exposé with creative nonfiction by detailing his years-long friendship with Axel Kirschner: a man who joins migrant caravans, hacks computers, escapes law enforcement, and loves his children.

Measures to protect Axel from potential legal repercussions meant I wasn’t able to speak with him to ask about his experience as a migrant in the Americas. But, on a sunny afternoon in August, I spoke with Levi about love (for Axel, for Mexico, for drama … ) over a slapdash pajeon that I made in my Mexico City kitchen.

Stephanie Wong (SW): Thank you so much for doing this. I’m sad that Axel can’t be here with us.


Levi Vonk (LV): Me, too. We’re trying to think of ways we could do more collaborative events together in the future. Currently we’re not disclosing his location, for his own protection. But we stay in touch almost every day. We’ve been doing that now for seven and a half, nearly eight years.


SW: What’s the vibe right now?


LV: It’s a bizarre moment because, on the one hand, there’s the elation of having the book published. On the other hand, the consequences of publishing the book have been a little scary. We’ve started receiving death threats. Someone hacked my phone and went through my contacts, found Axel’s name, and then tried to phish him like they phished me. No one else in my contacts—only him. It was clearly a targeted attempt to find his location.

It also seems that, recently, someone might have been trying to break into my apartment building in the middle of the night. On top of that, police patrols have shown up and told my neighbors—as a way to get in the building—that they’ve received calls about “disturbances” happening in my apartment. My apartment, specifically. So I’ve had to vacate my apartment and go into hiding. It’s hard to know, sometimes, the difference between true warning signs and paranoia, but it’s not worth the risk of waiting around and finding out.


SW: A lot of people are invested in both your and Axel’s well-inbeing now. Despite never having met him, I feel close to him as a result of hearing his voice in both his and your writing.


LV: Yeah, thank you. Axel’s been very adamant from day one that he is willing to risk something of himself, even his life, if it means exposing the people who exploited him. We both know that those people are still exploiting migrants today. He’s always said, “If that means I have to die to stop these people, I want that to happen.” Which is terrifying to me. I’m like: Let’s put on the brakes. Let’s try to figure out a different solution.

It’s hard that when you make political claims against powerful people there is no guarantee of safety. We’re just trying to traverse that scary terrain as best as we can.


SW: I feel like, having spoken with you and having read this book, that your approach diverges from the traditional way scholars think about the communities they study. You have spent so much time with Axel, built this genuinely beautiful relationship that you don’t see often in print. To know that your partner is at risk must be unbelievably hard.


LV: It’s been difficult to explain that to people, because our relationship is, in many ways, nontraditional. We’re straight-identifying men who have this very intense bond of love, but it’s a platonic love. It’s not a form of intimacy that is recognized, or even encouraged, by traditional masculinity.

I would be in the US, before the book came out, trying to tell people about Axel and what he means to me. I felt like I could never find the words. And one of the first things people would say is, “Oh, are you having sex with him?” Not that that, theoretically, would be bad in itself, but people seemed to jump to sexual desire rather than to a different bond between men. We hoped that, through the book, we could explain these other forms of intimacy.


SW: Speaking as a queer person, I try to tell people who are stuck in the world of heteronormativity that friendship is a form of romance.


LV: That’s a really great articulation, better than I’ve been able to put it before. I hope what comes out in the book is this aspect of desire when you meet certain people. There’s something there that you’re drawn to and that compels you to learn more. In our heteronormative world, we talk about that feeling exclusively through the language of heteronormative love and sex. We’re trying to explore what it means to be struck by someone with whom that’s not a possibility.

I also see it as an important critique of the mainstream way we think about politics or organizing. Typically, the idea is that if you create a political structure with a rational, well-articulated message, people will naturally be drawn to the cause. But we’re also at a moment when everyone’s incredibly disillusioned with the politics available to us via mainstream parties. We’re looking for an alternative. And I deeply believe that the alternative lies in love rather than in a simple, rational, measured politics.

But you have to understand what I mean by love. Certainly, within liberalism, “love” gets wielded to dismiss more violent forms of resistance and action (i.e., “Why can’t you just love each other?”). “Love” becomes a synonym for “passivity.” And, to me, that’s not what love is at all! The love I’m trying to depict means sacrificing something of one’s self for the other. Love as a negation of the self. There’s a violence bound up in that, but a necessary, inescapable one that we cannot ignore. I hope the book models that kind of love—love as politics, love as a recognition of and engagement with shared struggle.


SW: Right. Love is radical.


LV: Love is radical, baby.

SW: I wanted to ask you about the concept of lying, which is a big theme in your book. Do you find that migrants are put in situations where they have to “lie” more?


LV: The US views itself as a country that inherently bears truth. And it does that, in part, through the asylum system. The idea is that in order to be granted access to the wonderful, utopian community of the United States, you have to come to an asylum interview, bare your soul, tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, and then, if your truth is pure enough and you’re good enough, you can enter.

This is complete bullshit. Any immigration attorney knows it’s garbage. What some won’t say is that your job as an attorney—or, in my case, when I worked as an immigration paralegal—is to basically teach people how to structure the truth in such a way that they can gain entry to the United States.


SW: Right.


LV: In the book, Axel says, several times, something along the lines of: “I could have told you any lie, but I told you specific lies about myself. Lies about the person that I wish I could be. I said that I was a good dad, but I’m not allowed to be a good dad. I said that I got a college education, but I’m not allowed to get a college education.” His lies revealed real things about how he wanted to be seen, how he wanted to be understood in the world.

We got a lot of criticism from publishers when we pitched this book because we were trying to explore those lies, not smooth them over. Publishers hated it. They immediately said, “We don’t trust Axel. We don’t trust you because by continuously helping him out and giving him a platform, you’re essentially complicit.” We got rejection after rejection.

They didn’t trust us because in the traditional nonfiction narrative, the trustworthy expert tells the subject’s story. You find the truth and then you tell it plainly.

But to understand the power dynamics within undocumented migration, we have to go deeper. Being undocumented means you have to lie about who you are if you want to survive.


SW: In one section of the book, you describe visiting migrant shelters in Mexico, where everyone articulates their tremendous trust in the US government. They think: “I will just, like, show up and tell my story, and they’ll say, It’s okay, come on in.” And you’re saying, “Fuck that.”


LV: Yes.


SW: They protest, “I’m a religious person, I can’t lie, especially to an authority who has this control over my life, my family’s lives.”


LV: It’s incredibly disorienting for migrants. I have met some of the most brilliant people, people like Axel, on the migrant trail. But they are not educated in the ways that people are educated in the US. When they enter into asylum proceedings, it can be very difficult. Maybe they can’t read very well, or, if they can read and write, they don’t understand how our laws work. So, suddenly you have to teach them a whole other way of being, speaking, acting—which amounts to a completely different construction of the truth than the truth they were going to tell.

Even if they were going to tell their truth, it would have been the wrong one. It would have seemed implausible to the US government, and they would have been deported. The book had to delve into that just to understand how all truth is constructed; to hold up a mirror to an unjust immigration system in the US; to show how so-called truth can actually work for oppressors.


SW: Right, exactly. Your job was to translate these migrants into the culture of asylum proceedings in the United States. To make these people legible to people who expected them to be Americanized already.


LV: Exactly, yes. To those who see the white American experience as universal—and are so surprised when they realize it’s not.

I see the asylum system as an active rejection of anything that disrupts American universalism. It’s kicking people out who offer an alternative view of the world. And the only way you can get in is to say, “Yes, I accept the way America sees things. I’m going to literally speak the words of America out of my mouth, back to America, in order to get in.”

It’s hard that when you make political claims against powerful people there is no guarantee of safety.

SW: Where does Mexico, as a state, come into this equation?


LV: It’s an ambivalent role. As I detail in the book, Mexico has begun implementing the Southern Border Program, a program whereby the US pays Mexico millions of dollars every year to catch and deport as many Central American migrants as possible, as quietly as possible, before they can get to the US and ask for asylum. Consequently, Mexico really does a lot of the US’s grunt work. The intense militarization of Mexico’s immigration forces is really an externalization of the US border into Mexico. We could describe that process as a kind of neocolonization, in which Mexico doesn’t have a lot of choice—and I’m happy for that debate, around Mexico’s role in this, to continue. But meanwhile, an incredibly violent structure has been created.

Certain activists have arisen in Mexico who made their names and fortunes off supposedly helping migrants trapped in this scenario. But, in reality, it’s much more complicated than that.


SW: You describe middlemen who capitalize on the struggles of migrants, as well as Mexico’s nebulous role in the United States’ militarization of deportation.


LV: Mexico’s nebulous role, on a national scale, mirrors the nebulous role of these supposed activists on an individual one. They open migrant shelters where people can stay for the night. The migrants might receive a warm meal, a bed, and then they’re supposed to move on. And some do. But at the same time, all these other things can happen. Migrants can be recruited as drug mules. They can be trafficked. Activists might manipulate migrants into having sex with them. And sometimes they outright kidnap people—like one of these activists did with Axel. And there’s no oversight.


SW: You describe setting out on the migrant caravan for the first time, with a crew of journalists and cameramen, and feeling elated. Then, all of a sudden, you’re in the jungle where there’s no oversight, no documentation.


LV: At the very beginning of the book, I say the first rule of migrant caravans is that no one is there who has somewhere better to be. That includes migrant activists. These are people who don’t really have any other work opportunities. This is their best option. They can make the most money and have the most prestige doing this versus anything else. Those kinds of people can be seedy, and the situations can get dangerous very quickly.


SW: You imagine a stream of people in this transnational operation. But mostly it’s just people walking in the jungle and eating green mangos.


LV: And migrants who are incredibly disoriented. They’ve grown up in small towns, have maybe never left them before, and suddenly they’re on a caravan and they just have no idea what’s going on or what is normal. The migrant caravan offers a certain amount of protection, but it’s also not safe.

One of the great tragedies of migrant caravans—which I don’t spell out explicitly in the book, but which I hope shows implicitly—is that there is an amazing, beautiful potential in them. There’s an abundance of human life, creativity, struggle. And, so far, we’ve just left that to be wielded by whatever random person comes along.

What if we could think about organizing migrant caravans in a more overt way? I see caravans as one of the defining social movements of the 21st century so far. They are international, a direct threat to the capitalist state, and aren’t going away any time soon. But there also hasn’t been any coherent political demand or messaging that has come from them yet, other than these activists saying, “Please donate to my GoFundMe.”


SW: Right, right. And they get a free pass because it’s like, Oh, we just leave it to the humanitarians.


LV: Exactly. The philosopher Alain Badiou has stated that mass migration is one of the great political opportunities of our lifetimes. It completely forces us to rethink the bounds of our own societies and what is possible. What’s interesting here is that—if we take this opportunity seriously—then we, like the GoFundMe activists, should also be saying, “I don’t have somewhere better to be. This is it. I belong right here.” Migrant caravans could be foundational to 21st-century internationalist politics, but we have to figure out how to channel that energy into overt, long-lasting political demands.


Abolish Migrant Prisons: A Manifesto

By Carl Lindskoog et al.

SW: You stress in Border Hacker that this book isn’t parachute journalism. Your work isn’t some person at a major US newspaper coming in with a bougie company car, talking to two people, and then returning to their nice house in Williamsburg. It’s about relationships.


LV: I do see prestige journalists parachuting into migrant shelters for a weekend story. I’ve even thought, “That seems like a good gig—could I do that?” But I literally couldn’t write the story that way, even if I wanted to.

I want the drama, I want the messiness. The kinds of stories that you see in prestige outlets too often have neat little bows. They profess that they’re getting into the nitty-gritty, by which they mean they’re talking to someone who’s had a hard life, but it’s never about the uncertainty of truth. It’s never about the multiplicity of “individual” being. It’s never about how none of us are whole coherent subjects, that each of us contains contradictions. And that’s the only thing that can actually make me sit down at a computer and write—the only thing that compels me and draws me into people’s stories, my own story, Axel’s story, whoever’s story is the messiest. Because that’s where struggle is.

Contemporary nonfiction goes astray when it tries to avoid that messiness. The too-clean prose tricks you into thinking that there is a perfect world out there, and if any messiness or drama or violence or struggle arises, that’s wrong. That it shouldn’t be happening. But, in reality, messiness is all there is.

I’m not saying that all journalists should do what I’m doing by any means. There is a real need for clear, straightforward journalism. But there has to be something else as well. When I joined the migrant caravan, no one knew what it was yet. There was no corollary academic scholarship, no journalism. There wasn’t a language to describe what was happening. In the moment when something like that is born, you can’t have a perfect narrative. You have to delve into the possibility that things are just confusing. Embrace that confusion.


This article was commissioned by Stephanie Wongicon

Photo courtesy of Levi Vonk.