Following the success of America’s Covert Border War, The Untold Story of the Nation’s Battle to Prevent Jihadist Infiltration, Posthill Press’s Bombardier Books imprint contracted author Todd Bensman to write a second book titled OVERRUN: How Joe Biden Unleashed the Greatest Border Crisis in American History (February 21, 2023), explores the causes of the mass illegal immigration event triggered by the nomination, election and policies of President Joe Biden, the most severe in recorded American history.
Overrun is based on Bensman’s on-the-ground field reporting among the migrants involved throughout Mexico, Central America and all along the American border.
“Immigration is tough. It always has been because, on the one hand, I think we are naturally a people that wants to help others. And we see tragedy and hardship and families that are desperately trying to get here so that their kids are safe…. At the same time, we’re a nation state. We have borders. The idea that we can just have open borders is something that is, as a practical matter, unsustainable.” —Barack Obama, September 28, 2021 interview, Good Morning America
INTRODUCTION: “La invitación”
I first spotted twenty-three-year-old Jose Antonio listening to mariachi music on a truck stereo and drinking from cans of beer with a group in the deep shade beneath the four-lane international bridge connecting the Mexican town of Ojinaga to Presidio in wild West Texas. Tall and narrow-shouldered, he spoke through crooked discolored teeth, offering me, after some time, the two women who were with him—who I’d already guessed were hookers—and, then, some of the small, brilliant white block of cocaine they were snorting. Just down an embankment from where we stood, the blue-green Rio Grande burbled pleasantly around enormous white pillars that supported both sides of the split bridge. Vehicles clunk-clunked as they passed overhead on their way to either city. The shade offered cool respite from the sweaty afternoon sun that April 2021.
I’d come to Ojinaga because the flood of immigrants launching from the region around it and into West Texas was booming to historic heights, in numbers far beyond all living memory for that area. I had stumbled across Jose and his group while looking for people to interview who might be able to luminate what was happening. He was exactly the right guy for that. Aside from its place in Chihuahua State’s storied, generational drug smuggling trade, Ojinaga was famed because Pancho Villa fought a battle here in 1914 that a Hollywood movie studio actually filmed in real time.
More than one hundred years later, I was there to report about this new smuggling product for my Washington, D.C. employer, the Center for Immigration Studies and its beltway audience. Noting his smiles, it appeared Jose and I must have hit it off. This sparked a tightening of panic under my breastbone given that my translator had just informed me he was a foot guide, or guia, for the ultra-violent La Linea cartel. I began calculating how to say no thanks to both the women and the coke, without risking suspicion that I was police, which might lead to a wrong outcome. Was he armed? I couldn’t tell. I spied a wood-handled shovel amid the trash in the bed of his pickup truck. Could I grab it? This impromptu meeting broke one of my top personal security codes: Avoid Cartel People At All Cost. I felt torn between staying and running. I’d developed that rule during my years as a Texas-based newspaper reporter covering cartel drug wars and gun smuggling along the border, and from all I’d learned from my subsequent near-decade working the border for the Texas Department of Public Safety’s Intelligence and Counterterrorism Division.
I knew all too well that every cartel member must be considered mortally dangerous. Even low-level foot guides like Jose had cell phones or radios to instantly report to bosses. Once a call went out about a gringo claiming to be interested in cartel business affairs, vehicles could quickly screech up to block your way, with gunmen ordering you out of yours and into theirs. Among them might well be the unpredictable, impulsive, and probably coked-up, killer types known for going postal without orders.
I’d traveled into cartel country with a rough-hewn garrulous fifty-something fellow gringo named Chris Leland, who served as interpreter and guide. Chris was the perfect choice for this duty as a lifelong back-and-forth border denizen who’d grown up as a hunter and Rio Grande running guide. I’d asked him to help me find immigrants who could tell me firsthand why their numbers had more than tripled of late. Border Patrol, which typically caught 3,000 to 4,000 crossing there in any given quarter, had caught a whopping 14,091 in the first quarter of 2021. But I couldn’t find any to interview. Despite their ubiquity on the streets of other Mexican cities farther south, here, they were under the control of La Linea. The syndicate kept them hidden in local stash houses and motels until “go” time.
Over in Texas, big troupes of them, fifty or a hundred at a time, were getting caught during their ten-day clandestine backpacking treks through the desert wilderness. They were all on their way to Interstate 10 or some of its feeder roads, where cartel operatives would scoop them up and drive them to new lives in America. The new money from the exploding migrant trade was huge for the cartel, which was only too eager to add migrant smuggling to its traditional drug trafficking portfolio.
I later learned that most of the migrants were young, fit Central American men who’d mustered La Linea’s price tag of $10,000 or $12,000 each for the run. That day, hours of hunting interviewees yielded nothing; one group of seven we spotted on the street from their telltale backpacks first agreed to be interviewed, and then suddenly sprinted away. Not knowing what else to do, I decided to drive the dirt road along the Rio Grande to shoot some river video and discovered Jose and his parked party. Fortunately, one of the men with Jose recognized Chris as a regular customer at a mechanic’s shop in town and enthusiastically greeted him. Chris and both men spoke in Spanish over the truck stereo music,
with Chris pausing to translate, telling me that Jose was just back from a trek guiding migrants
on foot through the desert.
Suddenly, Jose was on his cell phone with someone. A chill swept over me. Under my breath, I told Chris that we could get out of this quickly if we simply got in the vehicle and drove straight onto the bridge, ten feet overhead. Atop the bridge, I’d just seen a parked U.S. Customs and Border Patrol vehicle with blue uniformed American officers standing by it. But from where we stood below, they’d be of no help whatsoever. On Mexican turf, ten feet may as well be a thousand miles. Jose hung up and said something to Chris, who turned to me and said, “Jose is willing for you to interview him. That was him on with his boss, and they said, ‘Sure, go ahead.’”
So we stayed. Despite the risks, getting to interview a cartel human smuggler about business was rare. Jose began telling me about the enormous economic windfall the immigrants were creating for La Linea in just the past few months, and how he was about to buy a brand-new truck. “What do you owe all this to—the money and all the new business?” I asked him.
He looked at me, shrugged, turning both palms up, and answered:
What’s that, I asked? La invitación, he explained, is what he and his cartel buddies were calling the newly elected President Joe Biden’s general welcome to immigrants to cross the border illegally and stay. It also referred to one of Biden’s early moves to virtually end all interior deportations so that, once
past Border Patrol, government deportations officer of Immigration and Customs Enforcement
known as ICE would leave them alone. News had spread quickly around the world that Biden’s restrictions had defanged and grounded the ICE officers at their desks. In response to that extraordinary development, Jose explained, single people were coming in droves and paying fortunes for his services.
He had never seen anything like it. Business in Mexico’s Chihuahua State was “Como nunca!”—like never before, Jose said. He and his crew in the cartel couldn’t keep up. Every house in the region was packed with smuggled human beings.
“They come in from all over Central America, Haiti, Africa, Indonesia, and from all over South America,” Jose explained, leaning into a snort from the flattened head of a sixteen-penny nail, smiling at his new good fortune.
“They just keep coming and keep coming and keep coming.”
Within a very short span of time, before and right after Biden’s November 2020 election, “La Invitacion” set off the greatest mass immigration border crisis in American history. The aim of
this book is to provide a first account of it, a building block to document, clarify, and provide reverse-engineered insight about what happened. The crisis is still in progress, a history in the making.
At the same time, strangely, the causes of the events at the heart of this book are in dispute. The political smoke around them is so thick that many Americans are left unsure that anything out of the ordinary happened at all. When they acknowledged on rare occasions that something unusual was happening along America’s long southern border, Democratic politicians, “immigration experts” and media punditry often blamed “root causes” like a “broken immigration system,” gang violence in Guatemala, a presidential assassination in Haiti, hurricanes in Honduras, or regular seasonal changes. More often, media writers and politicians denied anything unusual was happening. For example, on March 25, 2021, just days before I interviewed Jose, the Washington Post reported on the 221,000 illegal immigrants who poured over the border that month, breaking all previous national records, by claiming there was “no clear evidence that the overall increase in border crossings in 2021 can be attributed to Biden administration policies.”
Rather, the story found, “the current increase fits a pattern of seasonal changes in undocumented immigration….”
My reporting, based on immigrant testimony, repudiates all of this. It shows that only Biden’s messaging about warm welcomes and good treatment, and then the follow-through policies, were la invitacion that sparked off a mass migration that quickly broke every U.S. record and still goes on amid widespread denial. The “root causes” of poverty, bad governance, and crime in home countries that Democrats invoke to explain why immigrants feel pushed to jump the border are certainly real. But those factors do not change quickly enough to explain the monthly, quarterly, and yearly ebbs and flows of mass rushes and retreats. Policy changes in Washington or the American courts do that as I will prove through the interviews of those it impacts most: the immigrants.
Jose’s story jibed with what U.S.-bound immigrants already had been telling me for months before the American election, that they felt any Democrat president would invite them to come. So they did, even before the November 2020 election.
I first discovered and reported the phenomenon during a trip to deep southern Mexico and in Guatemala – nine months before America’s national election, in late January 2020. At the time, Trump had mixed up an unusual cocktail of deportation and asylum-restriction policies that had reduced apprehension numbers to low, manageable levels. In fact, I’d gone to the migrant trail waystation of Tapachula in the state of Chiapas to observe the extent to which one of those deterrence policies was responsible for sharply reduced immigrant flows: the Mexican National Guard deployment of 6,000 soldiers at 50 roadblocks leading from the Guatemalan border. Mexico’s troops were pulling migrants from buses and trucks, sending them back to Central America, blocking northward advances. Apprehension tallies at the U.S. border were way down. I expected to find hardly any U.S.-bound immigrants crossing in from Guatemala. But instead of the sleepy Tapachula streets I expected, I found crowds of hope-filled Central American women and children, Cubans, Pakistanis, and Haitians pouring into town, socializing and hustling in the city’s downtown central plaza. They were waiting in government lines, filling cheap restaurants, and occupying every room at down-at-the-heel roach motels.
To find out why, I waded into a large immigrant crowd of hundreds concentrated outside a government detention facility, waiting for their turn before a bureaucrat behind a sliding window. All were holding temporary visa permission slips that the Trump administration pushed the Mexican government to require them to issue under pain of bus deportation by the National Guard and Mexican immigration officers. They were there to get a weekly renewal stamp to prove they were still in town waiting for final Mexican asylum claim decisions. Once asylum grants came a few months later, they’d be free to pass through the roadblocks and keep going north.
A young, well-dressed and groomed Honduran woman holding an infant in the line provided the first surprising explanation. Katherine Cabrera said she had decided to suffer through the endless bureaucracy because, once she got her Mexican asylum months from now, she’d be in place in northern Mexico for when a Democrat prevailed in the American election like all the polls were saying would happen.
Wait, what, I asked somewhat surprised to hear such a sophisticated calculation?
“I want Trump out. I’ll wait for that because it would make things easier to get in,” she said simply, explaining the reasoning behind the gambit.
Her logic struck me instantly. Of course! For the last couple of months, a dozen Democratic primary contenders were on televised debate stages promising all illegal border crossers red carpet welcomes, citizenship, an end to deportation, free health care, no detention…
Even if many Americans had tuned out the debates, the rest of the world had listened to every word of them. Most polls said Trump was definitely going to lose.
I spent the next week posing the same question to dozens of other immigrants sweating their way through Mexico’s months-long bureaucratic requirements. Almost to a person, they provided the same Trump-defeat calculus, like Honduran Wilson Valladaras. The plan, he told me, was to get a Mexican asylum claim approved, use the papers to move to Tijuana “until Trump leaves,” then cross over the border when any one of those Democrats undid his policies because “right now, the Americans will throw you back” to Mexico.
Even that early, before Biden emerged to win the nomination, immigrants were hearing “la
They’d seen every candidate raise their hand – candidates Biden and Kamela Harris among them – when asked if they’d give free health care to illegal immigrants and decriminalize border crossing. Recalling those debate stage moments, I asked five migrant women from Central America to raise a hand if they came to wait in Mexico this early to be in place for when Trump suffered defeat at the ballot box. All five raised a hand without hesitation.
“A lot of people in El Salvador believe he [Trump] is the reason all this is happening, that he is selfish and cruel and doing everything he can to make us suffer,” El Salvadoran Brenda Ramos told me. But once Trump is defeated and the Democrats take over, things are going to get better.”
In cutting through the fog, this book relies on primary interviews with hundreds of immigrants like them who were on their way or just arrived, Border Patrol agents, law enforcement, migrant advocate statements, Mexican officials, current and former American officials, and the few other journalists with thousands of hours in the field. It draws on the experiences of people who lived these events on both sides of the border all the way down to Mexico’s own southern border, and Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua. When it makes sense, I present much of what I personally witnessed, photographed, videotaped, and recorded as audio from my own time in the field. But for anyone to understand the larger event in context, I offer some buttressing policy history and explanatory analysis. Bear with me on that. It’ll be worth it.
If my on-the-ground narratives sometimes come off as complicated and confusing, that’s because
I endeavored to mirror the mixed fiats spilling out of the White House and courts into the borderlands. The end result is what matters: millions of foreign nationals saw it all as opportunity and joined Club America in the Biden administration’s first eighteen months alone, and they’re still coming in large swells as I write this in August 2022.
Bubbe and the Refuseniks
Readers who want to learn about issues highly disputed along partisan lines deserve to know at least something the qualifications, worldview, and biases of those claiming the credentials to teach. I started working on the border during a twenty-year career as a newspaper reporter. From 2006 through 2009, I published long-form investigative stories about Mexico’s civil drug war, which claimed about 200,000 Mexican lives and quite a few American ones before that one waned.
Two multi-part series won National Press Club awards, one about cartel gun-smuggling, and another about international smuggling networks that were bringing over Iraqis and other Middle Easterners. After that, the Texas Department of Public Safety recruited me to work in the Intelligence & Counterterrorism Division, where I worked the next decade as an analyst and manager of analysts. Then, I went to work as an analyst for the Center for Immigration Studies. Between all of those jobs, I met and interviewed thousands of immigrants. I have teased out their stories in ICE detention centers for law enforcement purposes. I have sat with them all night at their fires. I have broken bread with them. I have followed them on jungle trails, bought them meals, found them shelter, lent them my cell phone, and given them rides. Most importantly, I have listened to their life stories, hopes, dreams, truths and lies.
No human being, including a somewhat jaundiced, cynical reporter like me, can possibly help
but empathize with their plights.
I understand in more than one way. My family’s own story, my chapter at least and those of the few generations above me, is defined by the lure of leaving one’s home for better lands. I enjoyed an upper middle class Jewish upbringing in Houston until I was 13 and then in Phoenix when my family moved there. My great-grandmother, Bessie Galsky, lived in our family home for five years as I was growing up and in grade school. We called her “Bubbe,” Yiddish for grandmother. All of my great-grandparents legally emigrated from the Pale of Settlement, an area covering today’s Ukraine and many former Soviet countries that unleashed soldiers and militias to frequently attack them. Few other countries in the world would take Jews in, and Israel had not yet come into being. As a young girl, Bubbe traveled with her father, a rabbi, through Ellis Island to America. Despite my own entreaties as a kid, she never would talk about the Czarist persecutions—the notorious pogroms—that spurred the families to flee and which we
all well knew from movies like Fiddler on the Roof.
She kept a black and white photo of her father on the wall, an unsmiling long-bearded narrow man wearing a broadcloth suit who could have played a Talmudic scholar in Fiddler. For a classroom assignment in grade school, we were to record a grandparent recalling childhood memories. But when I placed the tape recorder microphone in front of Bubbe, she said nothing. This is a phenomenon common in many immigrant Jewish families. She insisted she couldn’t remember, even though she was old enough to speak Russian and Yiddish when her family emigrated. I believe she knew all too well what happened but simply could not bear to remember.
To this day, I’m disappointed I never got to have that conversation with her. We always knew we lived in America because of Bubbe and because of all of my other great-grandparent who left the Pale of Settlement. We got here because of the American open-door policy in the early 1900s that, legally, allowed millions of persecuted Jews from the Pale with nowhere else to go to immigrate here. In the mid-1970s, my parents were part of an organization that helped resettle “Refuseniks,” Jewish families the Soviet Union harassed, fired from jobs and imprisoned for seeking exit visas to Israel and the United States. In our family home, after international pressure forced the Soviet government to release some, Refuseniks became part of the fabric of holidays and gatherings spent with them and my great-grandmother who would speak with them in Russian.
Most of the migrants at the heart of this book, however, are not like Bubbe and the Refuseniks actually fleeing real and imminent persecutions, who came in with U.S. government permission on authorized ships and planes. New arrivals at our southern border are crossing a guarded perimeter uninvited, without permission. They are not fleeing their continent’s version of Cossack raids and communist apparatchiks eager to imprison them and with nowhere else to find sanctuary.
Instead, most are fleeing poverty, local crime, and poor governance, which unfortunately describes the common conditions of billions of people throughout the world that the United States simply cannot take in. I see the difference between legal invitation and illegal unauthorized entry as significant distinctions that require separate outlooks and redress. And, in fact, so does prevailing law. Intending border-crossers cannot be cast in monolithic terms as their many liberal champions always seems to do in stateside media and in the parlors of Washington. Not all are saints. Some are aggressive, criminal, and dishonest to the core. But a great many are just regular people born in a poor country and willing to bend a few rules, maybe tell a few white lies, to live in a rich one. So-called “immigration experts” who have spent far less time with their subjects like to cast all of them as fleeing certain death like Bubbe’s family, thereby hoping to invoke a pressing moral duty to call them “asylum seekers” and improperly admit them. That narrative is mostly wrong. This book will detail at length how they and their advocates defraud and abuse America’s asylum system, the one set up for the Refuseniks of the world, on a massive scale at the border. By hook or by crook, the vast majority of the people I’ve met were grabbing
for more material wealth, better security, an education, and economic future for their children.
To a limited point, I can certainly empathize with immigrants as somewhat similar to the determined peoples who hit the wilderness trails during California’s Gold Rush in the 1850s, or traveled in Westward-bound wagon trains, or trudged up the Yukon’s glacial Klondike Trail in the late 1890s to reach the new gold fields. Those early adventurers and settlers were not fleeing certain death back in Tennessee or Pennsylvania when they outfitted a wagon or mule. Instead,they risked it all going toward more prosperity. It’s a pattern that has been repeated throughout history, from early Spanish to French explorers of the New World, who dreamed of Incan gold or fountains of youth. People have always gambled life for just the possibility of better fortunes; that gamble is hardly flight from unbearable persecutions. Like economic immigrants trudging through the Darien Gap of Panama today, the early American settlers who took to the wagon trails braved death by harsh elements, hostile attack by Native Americans, drowning, robbery,wild animal attack, and illness.
Were I born in Haiti, Honduras, Cuba, or Ghana facing a joyless life of impoverished sameness with no hope of upside or chance to realize personal potential, I might be neck and neck with them on the trail heading for an American border crossing. But therein lies the line of tension in my own point of reference: my compassion for anyone motivated to better themselves and my respect for rule of law. I part company with them over what they intend for their very first acts of joining America, which is to break the 1996 law against illegal entry, lie to defraud U.S. asylum laws, and then live illegally for years. This should strike anyone as a disqualifying first impression.
Unlike my great-grandparents and the Refuseniks, their dishonorable intention is to foist themselves on unwilling hosts who did not invite them, break American law, and personally profit in spite of the legislated will of United States citizens. For their own reasons, which this book will examine extensively in Chapter 11, political partisans on the American left dishonestly gloss over the distinctions between legal and illegal, conflating them into something just called “immigration.” America is, they want their audience to believe, one big amorphous “nation of immigrants,” the Honduran and my Bubbe one and the same. But they are not. America should only be a nation of legal immigrants who were invited and stamped for approval under the laws and practices of our times.
This brings us to how my nine-year homeland security intelligence career for Texas DPS informs my views, which starts with an abiding belief that America occupies moral high ground as a “nation of law.” The country is diminished when duly approved laws reflecting the will of Americans are not followed. Also my homeland security career also informs a hyper-awareness of national security risk created when millions of people from around the world enter as complete strangers, often without even identification.
My daily job for many long years required that I detect, manage, think deeply about, and predict national security threats that had not yet materialized. By training and practice, I see public safety and national security dangers when millions of total strangers of unknowable repute cross the southern border and start living in the country from 150 different nations, as the greatest number are now. I’ll explain why in chapters twelve, thirteen, and fourteen why the national risk profile can only rise when so many origin countries are rife with terrorist organizations, tribal warlords, atrocity-committing militias, organized crime gangs, and adversarial spies.
Because of these influencing experiences, I also wonder about America’s capacity to take in so many millions in a hurry. How would one country of 330 million want to regulate its gates if hundreds of millions more decide on their own volitions to enter? Because behind the current overwhelming flood of immigrants, that’s how many are watching our response. As many as three quarters of a billion people that America simply cannot practically absorb—many of whom are also paying attention to headlines and gauging political winds—may be lining up down-trail to follow the success of those they see up-trail. At least 700 million people around the world live in extreme poverty at any given time. The United Nations’ 2021 Global Multidimensional Poverty Index reports that 1.3 billion people are “multidimensionally poor,” a measure of nine main indicators of health, education, and standards of living.
I get how difficult it can be to look desirous people in the eye and say “No, you have to leave.” A Haitian man in northern Mexico coming in the current mass migration asked me if I thought the Americans would let him stay when he crossed. When I told him there was a good chance he’d find himself on a flight back to Haiti, he looked away and wept. I felt the lump form in my throat for him. But that difficult duty must be done, like other unpleasant government duties required for civilizational stability such as warfare, eviction, eminent domain, running animal shelters, and sentencing the convicted to prison.
No nation’s citizens can cede their inalienable nationhood right to say how many get to come
simply because immigrants demand it and especially, when refused entry, they seize it in
disrespect for American laws and rules. Nations have a right to have borders and to say who gets
to come in.
I lay most fault for this historic crisis more so on them and their enablers in the Biden White House and Democratic Party than on the immigrants, who rationally respond to unlocked doors left open on purpose. One of this book’s central theses is that today’s Democratic Party has taken a wholesale leave of its senses. It has, perplexingly and catastrophically, abandoned its own long-held commitment to opposing, impeding, and ending mass migrations with strong border security measures as a duty of national sovereignty.
Only a short time ago, Democrats in practice shared many ideals with the Republicans about controlling illegal immigration as a routine matter of safeguarding our national security and sovereignty. But in 2020, a radical faction of the party took it and the nation on a wild ride into a most bizarre political experiment. Chapter Four is dedicated to how these “new theologians” of an extreme political religion gained power over border policy and neutralized all the nation’s immigration laws for the first time ever.
In allowing an extreme faction of their party to dismantle these protections, conventional Democrats—wittingly or unwittingly—loosed literally millions of the world’s neediest over those borders in a stratospheric and ongoing cavalcade like nothing that I and the most grizzled veteran Border Patrol agents have ever witnessed. It is important to point out that I write this story while the crisis is in progress and the ending is not knowable. But enough is known that, if faithfully reported and explained, might prompt both Democrats and Republicans to seize the wheel and steer the final chapters