In 2021, Todd Bensman stood on the edge of the Rio Grande river with a member of a drug cartel. Despite usually trying to avoid the cartels, Bensman found himself interviewing the man, who happened to be on vacation after guiding a group of illegal aliens into Texas.
“He had his cocaine. He had a couple of friends there. He had a couple of women there for hire. And that’s how he was doing his vacation, under the bridge, drinking beer,” Bensman says of the cartel member.
“To what do you owe this great prosperity?” Bensman recalls asking the man.
“La invitacion,” the cartel member responded. When Bensman pressed the man as to what he meant, the cartel member explained that President Joe Biden had communicated to the world that the doors to America are open, creating an exceptional business market for the cartels.
Bensman, author of “Overrun: How Joe Biden Unleashed the Greatest Border Crisis in U.S. History,” joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to share stories from his years of reporting on the southern border and the reality of the current illegal immigration crisis.
Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript:
Virginia Allen: We are joined today by senior national security fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies and author Todd Bensman. Mr. Bensman, welcome to the show.
Todd Bensman: Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.
Allen: Your latest book is available now. It’s titled “Overrun: How Joe Biden Unleashed the Greatest Border Crisis in U.S. History.” Can you talk a little bit about your background first because you’ve actually spent years covering the cartels, covering drug smuggling, covering human smuggling along the southern border, correct?
Bensman: Sure, yes. In one fashion or another, I’ve had a couple of careers, I guess I’m now in my third one. But my first career you could say was as a newspaper reporter for a regular media, Dallas Morning News for 10 years and Hearst News down on the border, 23 years of that. And then I was recruited to join the intelligence division of the Texas Department of Public Safety out of Austin, where I headed a counterterrorism effort and unit in a fusion center with all of the federal agencies. And we did a lot of different kinds of terrorism-related work on the border. I did that for another 10 years. So in one way or another, I have been working at that border or about that border for many, many years.
And as a reporter, first started covering it in 2006 during the civil drug war that former [Mexican] President [Felipe] Calderon mounted against the cartels—200,000 dead, lots of spillover into the Texas territory. So I was back and forth for three years during that, covering that war, before I went into the intel business. And now I’m back down on the border again doing my old tricks, I guess.
Allen: Well, in all that time working on the border and covering the cartels, did you ever have any close calls with the cartels?
Bensman: No, I wouldn’t say, not really. I’ve had a couple of moments beyond the Mexican cartels down in the Nicaragua-Costa Rica borderlands. I did have some trouble down there. I write about one of those or a couple of those incidents in the book. It is actually a little bit more dicey down there than on our own border, but it’s all about risk mitigation. I do spend a lot of time all along the migrant trails from Panama all the way to Texas and California and on both sides of the border, actually.
Allen: I was really fascinated, for one, just by all the stories that you tell in the book “Overrun.” I think it’s pretty fascinating just everything that you’ve experienced down there and you do such a good job of telling these stories. But one in particular that really struck me was that in 2021 you were on a reporting trip and you ended up actually interviewing a cartel member underneath a bridge at the edge of the Rio Grande. You tell this story and it’s, quite frankly, pretty wild. What did you ask this cartel member when they agreed to let you interview them?
Bensman: Well, first of all, I always avoid cartel people no matter what level they are. That’s just a personal security code. You never know how things are going to go if you run into one of them, but that one just couldn’t be avoided. I ran into him, we spoke, we talked, and then I just learned that he was a smuggling guide for La Linea and he was on his vacation. He had just come back from guiding a big group over into Texas, West Texas, and before I could really figure things out, I was interviewing the guy.
And this was early on in the Biden border crisis. And the guy had for his vacation and his recreation, it was a wine and women sort of thing, except, actually, it was coke and women. He had his cocaine, he had a couple friends there, he had a couple of women there for hire, and that’s how he was doing his vacation under the bridge, drinking beer.
And at any rate, I asked him, “To what do you owe this great prosperity?” And this was amid a lot of debate inside the United States about who was causing this mass migration crisis. Root causes and complex interplays between hurricanes and corrupt governments and Haiti and all of these things. And he just came right out and said it. He called it “la invitacion.” And I said, “Well, what do you mean by ‘la invitacion’?” And he said, “Well, that’s the invitation that [President] Joe Biden issued to the entire world to come now because the doors open. ‘We’re going to open the door to you.’”
And he laid out a couple of policies that he knew about, that they all knew about, which at that point was the elimination of all deportation from the American interior, which was a big deal for him and his business because his people were all runners that were trying to get away from Border Patrol, paying $10,000, $12,000 ahead to get into the American interior to take advantage of this no deportation policy, which persists to the present day.
And so I regard that smuggler along with all of the immigrants that I’ve interviewed as really good sources on this. And maybe the primary sources and maybe even the only sources anybody should listen to about why they’re coming in such huge numbers and why they’re coming now. It’s “la invitacion” and not much else.
Allen: Really wild to hear that straight out of the mouth of a member of the cartel. But of course, issues at the border with the cartels, they’ve been going on for a long time. We’re hearing a lot more about it right now, but hasn’t the issue of cartels and drug smuggling, hasn’t that been a long-time issue? You’ve covered for years, what have been the shifts and changes though?
Bensman: Yes, this is not a new problem. In the homeland security circles we call a problem like the cartels and drug trafficking and all of these things a wicked problem, meaning extremely difficult to manage and especially ever to eliminate. The best you can hope often is to manage it down, to control it at a lower level.
But what I will say is that the human wave that has come through this, millions of people, we’ve never seen anything like this, and neither they. Those cartels have never had this kind of traffic coming through their territories. And so they turn their apparatus around to capture the revenue like any good business or industry would.
And we have good reporting from [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] intelligence, public reporting that their revenue moved from somewhere in the neighborhood of $500 million a year for human smuggling to bring people over or to charge them—it’s kind of a side hustle—to as high as $13 billion in that first year of 2021.
That level of revenue, that kind of a revenue stream changes the whole situation, really the ground, the war on the ground, because they take that money and they invest it in armament. Armament is where they derive their power inside Mexico and they also use it to expand their influence through bribery.
And this is something that is completely different. We think that more revenue is coming into cartel coffers than drug trafficking profits, which is a sea change if that proves out to be true. But there’s pretty good reporting that it is true. And even if it’s not true, just the sheer scale of their empowerment, fabulous wealth, fabulous riches—buying .50-caliber machine gun belts, belt-fed machine guns, .30 caliber, Claymore mines, tanks, personnel, all sorts of military shoulder-fired rockets, everything.
So that is going to be a problem for us for a long, long time, many years to come, and not to mention the Mexican government.
Allen: We are talking with Todd Bensman, author of “Overrun: How Joe Biden Unleashed the Greatest Border Crisis in U.S. History.” And when we hear about the power of the cartels, when we hear about how things have changed for the cartels specifically under President Biden’s policies, I think you do a really good job in the book of just painting an image of what this actually looks like in practice.
So, in May of 2021, you are on the U.S. side of the Rio Grande river, and you write in the book that what you witnessed was an organized machine, unlike anything that you had ever seen or experienced on the border. Talk a little bit about what you were seeing at the Rio Grande as cartels were bringing illegal aliens across.
Bensman: Yeah, I’ll try. So, before the Biden border crisis, even in bad times, it was a cat and mouse game down there. You had smugglers trying to get their loads over without anybody noticing them, running and hiding and dodging, and the police and the cops and the sheriffs and the Border Patrol setting up and hiding and trying to catch them. And we had choppers and all that sort of thing.
But when I went down there, my first really to ground zero when this thing is in full throttle, what I saw was like a D-Day invasion landing. Nonstop rafts and boats, sometimes four, five, six abreast coming across the river fully loaded. With, on this side, Border Patrol greeters, I guess—I mean, they were like Walmart greeters—and Texas DPS and National Guard just all set up to process them into the country: “Flashlights on the ground, watch your step, here’s water, here are things that you need, walk up the hill over there and there’ll be a processing station waiting for you.”
And this is just something that is just, I mean, if you’ve been down to the border before this, that if you saw this afterward, is just stunning. It’s striking. And it did strike me as the world turned on its head. And it’s still like that.
It just went on seven days a week, night after night after night, with just thousands and thousands of people because of policy, being able to just turn themselves over to the Border Patrol because they were being brought into the country by the tens of thousands, by the hundreds of thousands, and now by the millions right over the border.
And it’s just something beyond the American experience, certainly beyond any border experience. And when you talked to 10-, 15-year Border Patrol veterans who’ve just been out there for 40 hours a week for years, they’re the same way. I’ve just never seen anything like this. It was positively demoralizing to be ordered to be Walmart greeters for people that they should have been deporting, catching and deporting.
Allen: And what were those policy changes that caused this, that have led to the situation that you saw in May of 2021 there on the edge of the Rio Grande river and that we’re still seeing today? What did we see after January 2021 that led to the situation?
Bensman: Sure. Well, for starters, remember that [former President] Donald Trump bequeathed a border to the Biden administration that was under Title 42, instant expulsions for everybody. So anybody who crossed and got caught by Border Patrol would be pushed back into Mexico on grounds that we have to protect the country from COVID. Under the Trump administration, that was about 88% of everybody that they caught got pushed back into Mexico.
On Inauguration Day, however, the Biden administration opened three exemptions to Title 42. One was for family units, groups that had children under 7—young children, infants, babies. And that was the bulk, they were turning themselves in by the tens of thousands, which I’ll explain why in a minute. And then the other category was unaccompanied minors. We will not return any unaccompanied children who crossed by themselves back to Mexico, we’re going to keep them all. And three were pregnant women who were seven months or postpartum women who were bringing infants.
So between those three categories, we had immediately on Inauguration Day an incredible—that’s what I saw, I mean, that was still was going on. There were mostly women, children, families, pregnant women that were seven months, and the unaccompanied minors would cross anywhere on the border and would be let right in.
And that’s what caused it because the rest of the world saw this in selfies and on their cellphones—everybody has cellphones—that the Biden administration was letting everyone in. What caused that on the Mexican side, though, was a new law the Mexican Congress passed 72 hours after they confirmed that Biden had won the election. The law had the effect of relieving Mexico of the legal responsibility of taking care of families with young children and unaccompanied minors, it just so happens.
So that law went into effect 60 days later when the Trump administration was almost out and couldn’t do anything. And all of those tens of thousands of families and people in family units rushed to the border to wait for Trump’s departure. And on Inauguration Day, the Biden administration put these exemptions in place for them and let them in. And it has never stopped.
Allen: Unfortunately, we’ve seen that not only are individuals who are families and people that are genuinely looking for a better way of life trying to cross the border, but we’ve also seen a lot of bad actors attempting to cross the border. And specifically, we’ve seen that a historic number of people in America’s Terrorist Watchlist have been apprehended at the border. Do we have any idea how many are getting into the country who are not successfully apprehended, who are on America’s Terrorist Watchlist?
Bensman: The answer to that is no, we don’t have any way. I think the government has some data about this when they catch them in the interior, but oddly, the Biden administration in about April of 2022 put up a statistics page on its cbp.gov website that tracks the numbers of people on the terror watchlist that we do catch. And those numbers are uncomfortably high, 98 on the FBI terror watchlist in 2022. And we’ve had 51 so far in 2023.
People from the Middle East and from Northern Africa and Somalia and those countries are all coming through. But we also know that close to a million and a half or probably far in excess of a million and a half people have gotten away.
Remember early on in our talk I was telling you about the deportation-free zone in the American interior? That has acted on as a very powerful narcotic lure for the entire world’s population of people that don’t want to get caught by Border Patrol. If you could just get past the 100-mile mark, you’re pretty much in and never have to fear deportation, no matter how bad your criminal record.
But if we’re looking at a million and a half “gotaways,” you have to wonder if people on the terror watchlist got through. I mean, just a few weeks ago, we caught an Iranian in the trunk of a car who may or may not have been on the watchlist. But the point is that they’re sneaking in, they’re not turning themselves in, plenty are not turning themselves from countries of concern.
Allen: One of the most disturbing elements of the situation on the border, of the border crisis that you cover in your book “Overrun” is the way that cartels, smugglers are using children in particular. Can you address that? How are children getting involved in this situation?
Bensman: Well, remember that the Biden administration let the entire world know, and I mean in presidential news conferences, interviews with Biden himself, with Mayorkas, [Homeland Security Secretary] Alejandro Mayorkas, that we will not turn back unaccompanied minors. We’re taking all comers in. And as a result, we’ve had about 350,000, the greatest number in U.S. history. Up until 2013, we didn’t even keep track. That was so not a problem. They didn’t even keep the numbers.
So when you’ve opened that kind of an exemption, you create a really powerful suction, you turn children into commodities, rare earth metal commodities, highly valuable. And so what we have been seeing a lot of is families. Mom has four kids. So mom rents them out to three or four guys who are willing to pay to have a kid cross the border with them as their kid, and the smugglers will generate false parent guardian documents for them.
And that has been … probably one of the more common schemes. … And then that way the families, the mother gets in free, the kids all get in free, and they all try to reunite later inside the U.S., but sometimes it doesn’t work out. You’re handing your kid off to strangers for some period of time.
But the other thing that happened is, that spurred the unaccompanied migrant crisis is, remember I said that in the beginning and for quite some time the administration was only allowing in families with kids under 7 years old? Well, what happens if you have a family that’s got a couple of older kids. And so the whole family would be pushed back into Mexico under Title 42. They didn’t qualify. One of the kids was 13. So they figured this out, of course, on the Mexican side.
And thousands upon thousands of families self-separated on the Mexican side, had their older kids cross over by themselves, and then they were able to successfully cross in with their younger kids or on their own by smuggling over, and they would try to reunite on the other side.
Well, we’ve heard stories about children abandoned in cornfields and just on the side of the road, and everybody’s wondering why that is. Well, this scheme is responsible for the abandoned children in the middle of a field in South Texas kind of a thing. Because whoever rented them out or whoever abandoned them, the unaccompanied minors or the younger children who were rented out, don’t want anything to do with them after they’re in. So they just leave them and the cartels bring the unaccompanied minors in, and there is abuse that happens between handing them off and the crossing, and there are stories about some of them never showing up again or disappearing, that sort of thing.
So this is all policy-driven, and when they hear a new policy, the immigrants, they’re figuring out an angle immediately. And when you spend a lot of time with the immigrants, like I have, they explain that. All you have to do is ask them and they’ll explain the whole thing to you, what they’re doing.
Allen: Mr. Bensman, I think you hear this and you just think, “Wow, something has to change. Something has to shift.” You end the book with a chapter titled “There Is Hope.” What is that hope?
Bensman: Well, my position is, and in the book it’s supported by reporting, which is that the Democratic Party coalition—normal, mainstream Democrats in this country—have never abided by or countenance to policies that we are seeing today.
No deportation, no detention, creating brand new admittance systems out of whole cloth, ending any enforcement of any sort, chaining ICE officers to their desk. All of these things are, I mean, I’m just going to say they’re just completely crazy. They’re lunatic, even by the standards of regular Democrats. And some of those Democrats are starting to speak out about it.
[Former President] Barack Obama in recent year or two has come out against what he’s seeing down there, saying, “We can’t sustain this.” [Former President] Bill Clinton, the same thing.
And I think that the hope lies in the fact that the Democrats—who gave their immigration portfolio over to this extreme fringe, lunatic, left-weighing far, far, far left of them—that they will at some point see the light and join with Republicans in a bipartisan spirit to begin the process of enforcing the laws that Congress passed and fixing a few of the ones that need to be fixed that allow for mass migration, like asylum, the asylum law. I’ve got a whole chapter in the book titled “Insane Asylum” because it so is, a few tweaks. And I’m just hoping that that they’ll see the light of day. That’s my “there is hope.”
Bensman: We’ll hope. I mean, I get a lot of interviewers saying, “God, that was so depressing, Todd.” I thought, “Well, let me try to give some silver lining here.”
Allen: Yeah, and I appreciate you doing that because we do need some hope to hold onto. But truly appreciate your time today. For our listeners who want to pick up a copy of the book, the title is “Overrun: How Joe Biden Unleashed the Greatest Border Crisis in U.S. History.” You can get the book on Amazon. Also, if you want to read more of Mr. Bensman’s work, you can do so at Center for Immigration Studies, that’s cis.org. But Mr. Bensman, thank you so much for your time today. We really appreciate it.
Bensman: Thank you for having me. I really do appreciate the attention.
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