This deported hacker used his technical skills to help get back to the United States

In 2015, Axel Kirschner, a 37-year-old undocumented immigrant born in Guatemala and living in New York City, was arrested for a minor traffic incident while driving his son to kindergarten. Kirschner, who was just one year old when he came to the United States, had grown up on Long Island, New York. He says he became a hacker in order to make money due to his undocumented status.

But when Kirschner arrived in Guatemala, he was told the government didn’t recognize him as a citizen either – all records of his existence had been destroyed by a hurricane in 1998. He was effectively stateless. With nowhere to go, Kirschner set off on foot through Mexico to reunite with his family in New York.

Levi Vonk, a journalist and anthropologist at UC Berkeley, met Kirschner by chance in Chahuites, Oaxaca, while Kirschner was walking in a caravan of migrants in southern Mexico. At the time, Vonk didn’t know that Kirschner was a hacker. But he decided to follow Kirschner and document his perilous journey past human traffickers, corrupt priests and anti-government guerrillas.

Borders Hacker, co-written by Vonk and Kirschner and published in April 2022, tells the story of their journey from the migrant caravan to the Mexico-Guatemala border, following Kirschner’s kidnapping by migrant activists and ending with his preparations to return to the United States. states. The book is told from two angles. The following clips recount the time when the trailer Kirschner was in was surrounded by immigration and Mexican police forces, and Vonk learned for the first time that Kirschner was a hacker. The first extract is told from the point of view of Levi Vonk; the second, from Axel Kirschner’s point of view.

The following excerpts have been edited for style and length.

Immigration had us surrounded. And they had brought reinforcements – a cadre of federal police with enough vehicles to detain the 400 people in the migrant caravan. We had managed to barricade ourselves in a local shelter, but were told that if we tried to escape, we would be deported.

Through the shelter’s chain-link fence, we could barely make out the reflection of orange and white immigration trucks in the distance and, almost comically, men in dark sunglasses gazing at the shelter through pairs binoculars.

Each day the seat throttled a little more air out of the shelter. The food supply began to dwindle. Whenever volunteers from the shelter went into town to buy supplies, the police questioned them and they often returned empty-handed. Then the improperly installed plumbing system burst due to overuse. Water had to be rationed, toilets clogged, and the furthest corners of the shelter walls began to stink. We realized that people were defecating there at night.

“We are marking our territory,” Axel joked. “Like the dogs they think we are.”

Then my phone stopped working. I couldn’t call or text anyone. Axel was also offline. I looked around me and a whisper went through the shelter. No one could receive a call.

“They jam the signal,” says Axel. We scoured the perimeter for clues. On the other side of the soccer field [near the shelter], Axel stopped and pointed. “Look at this truck. Is there a weird antenna on it? The vehicle had some kind of contraption on its roof, like a small satellite dish. Axel had a funny look in his eyes. “I’ll be right back,” he said, then zigzagged off through a football game.

“Wait,” I called. “Where are you going?”

“To find the most badass computer they’ve had in this bitch.”

Ten minutes passed and my phone still didn’t work. Then half an hour. The reality of signal jamming began to set in. There would be no way to call for help if immigration attacked us now. I couldn’t even tell my family. I desperately tried to type my girlfriend’s number into my phone. Nothing. After an hour, I saw Axel running back across the football field.

“Try it now,” he shouted.

Lo and behold, I had a bar. Only one, but it was enough to send a message. “Dude, you are a miracle worker.”

“I’ll be honest bro, I don’t know how long the signal will last. It’s just a temporary defense.

“Are those in charge of the shelter aware?

“Yeah, I was just with them. They were making calls to Mexico to let them know those bastards were blocking us.

The signal was spotty from then on, but each time it dropped, Axel eventually managed to get it working again. I imagined the police on the other side of the fence losing their minds, trying to figure out how we were continuing to thwart their jammer. No one would have guessed that a deportee like Axel, so broke he couldn’t even afford toothpaste, was the one with his finger in the dike.

But Axel couldn’t hide who he was forever. Shelter activists had seen what he had done, and soon word began to spread through these secret, elite networks of a migrant – a stateless migrant, with no one to come looking for him – whose powers were just too amazing to pass up they will get lost.

Now, I’m not saying I’m the best hacker in the world or anything. But I’m also not saying that I’m the worst in the world, and a person with my skills, a person who knows what I know, in a country like Mexico? Well, now we’re talking business, baby. The security systems in Mexico are all from the 1990s or some shit, and for a guy like me, who grew up playing with computers during that time, it’s the easiest thing in the world to break into. That I can do in my sleep, do you know what I’m sayin’?

But I never thought it would cause me so much trouble after my deportation, and I especially never thought I would have to use my skills in a migrant caravan. But once immigration surrounded us and I realized the police were blocking us, I knew we were in deep shit.

So I went straight to the directors of the trailer and told them I needed the most badass computer they had. And just by sheer luck, there was this volunteer in the shelter where we were staying named el Colocho who already had this hacking software called Kali Linux on a bootable USB. I guess once in a while he liked hacking too or something, I don’t know. But I turned it on and started doing my thing. The police had cut off the wifi and cell phone signal in the shelter, but I realized the jammer was not strong enough to reach the neighbor’s wifi as well. So I got access to his router, then I started trying to hack into the police jammer. And I realized that the jammer was cheap crap, not very sophisticated. They could only block us on two signals at a time, and they had chosen 4G LTE, which blocks phone signals and Wi-Fi. So what I did was I changed the frequency . I reprogrammed the jammer to block 3G LTE, which the phones used to work on. But that left our phones, which now ran 4G, totally free. The cops thought they were still blocking us, but we really could still make calls on the sly.

And after the priest who ran the sanctuary saw me working my magic, and el Colocho was there to confirm that I was the real deal, he sat me down, and, in that soft, gentle voice that he has – a voice that sounds like he knows someone else might try to listen – he asked me what else I could do. And I don’t know why I answered him honestly, because whenever I speak honestly, I’m still screwed, but I guess I thought he was a priest and I could trust him. So I told him I was a hacker. And then he got serious, even more serious than he normally seems, and he whispered that he had a lot of enemies, especially enemies within the government. The people who were always trying to hurt him. And that he needed someone like me. Someone who could have shielded him from outside attacks, and someone who could have been more aggressive and figured out who wanted to do damage. Someone who could monitor the situation, do you feel me? And then he asked me if I could be that someone.