Levi Vonk is a young anthropology student investigating migrant caravans in Mexico. Early in his process Levi meets Axel Kirschner, whose story includes time in the US, Guatemala, and travel through Mexico. Their experiences form the core of their book, Border Hacker: A Tale of Treachery, Trafficking, and Two Friends on the Run.

Axel is Afro-Latino and tells Levi he’s Guatemalan by birth but also spent many years living as an undocumented child and teen in metro New York City. With a wife and two kids living in the US, Axel was making his way in the world of technology. But a minor traffic stop leads to his deportation to Guatemala. When Levi meets him, Axel is making his way north and hopefully back to his family.

The more time the two men spend together, the more connected they become. Levi has tenuous connections to aid organizations and tries to help a variety of folks. But it’s Axel that he risks the most for. Together they dodge the cartels, border agents, police, and other unsavory characters.

Border Hacker gripped me from the very first chapter, although it often seemed too outlandish to be true. On the other hand, Levi is grounded in his approach, despite the sometimes frantic nature of his efforts to help Axel and others. These two men are on a voyage together that gets worse before it gets better, and ultimately isn’t tied up in a neat Hollywood-style package.

My conclusions

The complexity of the whole migrant experience is completely believable. Levi and Axel encounter real-life characters throughout Mexico, many of whom live in the grey world between providing aid to migrants and making money by helping the cartels. Nothing is black and white in Border Hacker except the ink on the page.

Most of the story is told by Levi, and his tone is mostly measured with the underlying calm that comes from his white privilege. He often mentions the advantage of having a US passport. And yet, he’s not afraid to put his life and future on the line for the migrants, especially Axel.

Interspersed between Levi’s sections are Axel’s contributions, developed from multitudes of far-ranging conversations between the two men. Axel speaks with his own unique patois, a rhythm they include rather than whitewash. He’s a ballsy guy caught in an untenable situation, often with no choice but to use his hacking skills for illegal activity.

Axel and Levi are likable characters, which makes rooting for them easy. This is a cultural anthropology story that’s well-told and eminently readable.

I recommend Border Hacker if you want an unvarnished, true story of migrant caravans and undocumented life in Mexico.

Shortly after reading American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins, I found Border Hacker. The two are perfect fiction/nonfiction book pairing on the same topic. Volk and Kirschner do a better job of letting the migrant tell their own story. But I’ll let you decide which book feels more realistic. My suggestion for a nonfiction pair is Jacob Soboroff’s Separated: Inside an American Tragedy.


Many thanks to NetGalley, Perseus Books, PublicAffairs, Bold Type Books, and the authors for a digital advanced reader’s copy in exchange for this honest review. Border Hacker debuts on April 26, 2022.