The Conflationists: Purveyors of the emerging far-right narrative on the U.S.-Mexico border

In spending time along the border as a volunteer and journalist, freelance reporter Dan Grossman found that some right-wing media personalities are less interested in learning about the root causes of the migration crisis than the attention they get from spreading reactionary rhetoric.

In three days, I saw 1,000 migrants crossing the border.

From October 10-12, I served as a volunteer with the nonprofit relief organization Humane Borders at the southern boundary of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Arizona. This stretch, which also delineates the Mexican border, experienced such a huge surge in migration this past fall that U.S. Customs and Border Protection closed the nearby Lukeville crossing on December 4. (They opened it again on January 4.) 

The closure set off an explosion of international media attention focused on a seemingly endless flow of migrants. But back in October, I saw that this surge was already well underway. During that month, Border Patrol encountered 55,000 migrants in the Tucson Sector, which includes Organ Pipe and most of the Arizona border.

One of Humane Borders’ main objectives in the area is to service the water stations along the border fence. During those three days, however, I was mostly handing out bottled water to the hundreds of migrants who had crossed through holes in the fence made by cartel members in Mexico. 

I was working with the nonprofit group because I believed in their mission, which is to keep migrants alive. But as an independent journalist, taking a three-week road trip along the southern border — from San Diego, Calif., to Brownsville, Texas — I also wanted to report on the situation. As it turned out, I wasn’t the only outsider at Organ Pipe covering this story. 

A media personality with a large following, Ben Bergquam, was also on the beat. As I would soon find out, he was less interested in discovering the actual root causes of the border crisis than imposing his far-right narrative on it. But he is only one star, as it were, in the Right’s media universe.

I first saw Bergquam on my first day as a volunteer, as I sat in the passenger seat of the Humane Borders truck that another volunteer, Tom Wingo, was driving. We were passing by the processing tents used by Border Patrol for migrants who had just crossed. On the other side of the dirt road from the tents, was Bergquam — I didn’t know who he was at the time — smiling and aiming a cell phone camera in our direction. He wore a ball cap spelling out “Real America’s Voice,” a right-wing streaming, cable and satellite network. I reciprocated the gesture, aiming my phone at him and taking a picture as we drove past.

Over the next several hours, I encountered hundreds of migrants, mostly Senegalese, who had just climbed through a hole in the fence cut by cartel members in Mexico, and who were walking on the road parallel to the border. (I used my rusty French to ask their nationality while giving them water bottles as they walked past.) 

These migrants were here because of the expiration of Title 42 on May 11, 2023. This Trump-administration-instituted policy had allowed for the rapid expulsion of migrants on public health grounds — ostensibly due to COVID-19 — even those with a credible fear of returning to their country of origin. 

But now, instead of trying to evade capture by the Border Patrol, asylum seekers welcomed it. 

Upon release into the U.S., if they are released, they are often given notices to appear at immigration court. But these court dates could take years to arrive and, in the meantime, they are free to remain in the country. Not coincidentally, the flow of migrants entering from Mexico outside the legal ports of entry to seek asylum has steadily increased since May 11 and shows no sign of ending anytime soon. In December, the number of migrant encounters with Border Patrol was up to more than 9,600 every 24 hours, up from 6,000 in October.

My volunteering was just about over for the day when I encountered Bergquam again. I still didn’t know who he was, but he bore an uncanny resemblance to Rolling Stone contributing editor Matt Taibbi. This time we encountered each other near water station number 1, the site farthest east, closest to Lukeville. He was surveying the scene. The tented water station maintained by Humane Borders consisted of one 55-gallon drum of water with a faucet, water cups, and a 24-pack of standard 16.9 ounce water bottles. Around it was a good deal of trash, evidence of thousands of migrants passing through.

Because I was curious about Bergquam and his view of things, I approached him.

We exchanged perfunctory greetings and I asked him what he had seen so far.

“Oh just bad,” he said.

“Bad?” I wanted clarification.

“It’s nonstop people coming in and gaming the asylum system with some cartel making millions.” he said as if he’d said it many times before. “While this is happening, you’ve got hundreds of runners that don’t want to get caught in either direction,” he continued. “You don’t have Border Patrol resources out here. You’ve got guys dying out there because we don’t have Border Patrol out there to find them before they die.”

I had some more questions for him. One was based on Tom Wingo’s description to me of a video online that he’d seen recently, that I hadn’t seen.

“Are you the one claiming that 95 percent of those coming across the border are military-aged Syrians?” I asked.

“No,” he said.

“Was it somebody else?”

“It was reported that there are Syrians coming across now.”

“Where did you hear that from?” I noted his use of passive verb construction: It was reported that….

“Border Patrol,” he said.

“Border Patrol said that to you?”

“You have Pakistanis and Syrians coming now,” he said. “I have no idea on the numbers, but it was enough for them to pull me aside and tell me.”

Even though I was skeptical of his claims, as I had yet to encounter any Syrians or Pakistanis in my trips to three different heavily traveled migrant crossings, this reporter seemed like a reasonable enough guy in person. At least in terms of his easy-going grin and his relaxed body language.

You know, it’s one of those things,” he continued. “I get what you guys are doing out here. “I’m mixed on it. Because I feel like a lot of it incentivizes more, but at the same time, we don’t want people dying.”

“Well,” I said, “That’s the consensus of people who are working is that they don’t want people to die. That’s the only consensus I’ve heard.”

“I’ve talked to a couple of ladies,” he responded. “They seem genuine. I know every organization is different, but out by Arivaca, there’s some, like No More Deaths, that’s just a communist front…” Bergquam went on to accuse this nonprofit aid organization of inviting “illegals” and cartel members into their camp in Arivaca, Ariz., south of Tucson, and giving them maps.

“Is that what they told you?” I asked.

“No, I’ve got it from the actual migrants themselves. They said they got the maps from the cartel members. And the maps are created by the No More Deaths organization. But look I get it, I get my heart goes out, especially when I see the women and kids. I just came up from the Darién Gap in Panama, and I went across Panama and it’s just tragic. You know, you got kids dying every day and women being raped and it’s just bad. So a lot of bad stuff. How we fix it is a much bigger question.”

But it seemed apparent, to me at least, that we weren’t going to resolve this issue by discussing it any further.

“I gotta roll,” he said.

Later that night, at the casita of Tom Wingo and his wife Carol in Ajo, 40 miles north of Lukeville, I googled Real America’s Voice and discovered that the Matt Taibbi deadringer was, in fact, one Ben Bergquam, the host of the RAV show “Law and Border.” Other hosts on that network include campus agitator Charlie Kirk, former Trump advisor Steve Bannon, and rocker Ted Nugent, noted more for his testosterone-heavy hits like “Cat Scratch Fever” than his insight on current affairs.

What I found on “Law and Border” made Bergquam’s remarks to me earlier in the day seem reasonable in comparison. He was a conflationist, not a journalist. 

That is, he seemed eager to conflate the border crisis with terrorism and state-sanctioned violence. 

In a recent RAV broadcast, he used that far-from-neutral term “military-aged” to describe male Senegalese migrants, implying a military invasion and/or terrorist threat. That label, which has gained currency in right-wing media over the past five years or so, has the effect of distorting, rather than describing, reality. Certainly this is true when it comes to Senegalese migrants. It’s worth mentioning that Senegal is located in West Africa, rather than, say, the Middle East, and is a key ally of the US, according to the State Department. Accordingly, terrorist attacks by Senegalese nationals in the U.S. have never been a thing.

Bergquam’s conspiratorial and reductionist worldview is reflected in many of his assertions on RAV, including his claim that the border crisis in Arizona would not be happening if Kari Lake hadn’t had the gubernatorial election stolen from her in 2022 by Katie Hobbs. 

But it wasn’t reflected in Tara Mamadou, a 23-year-old Senegalese migrant who I met at the McDonalds in Nogales, Ariz., on October 14. He was a tall guy sporting a Gucci (or Gucci knockoff) manbag. He had recently been released from the custody of Border Patrol. He told me he and the two young men he was traveling with were tailors by profession, from the town of Sieno, about 100 miles northeast of the Senegalese capital Dakar. When I asked him why he was seeking asylum, he told me he was scared of the violence in the country, but I was unable to glean from him what ethnic group, or what conflict, he was running from. They were headed for Chicago, Illinois, he said. 

As far as I could see, they aspired not to engage in war or terrorism but to find work.

Despite Bergquam’s assertion to me that he sympathizes, in his “mixed” way, with what groups like Humane Borders are doing to help migrants like Tara Mamadou, he made clear his point of view on RAV that members of such non-governmental organizations should be prosecuted. Such statements carried the weight of a threat, as they echoed Trump policy from 2017-2020. 

During the Trump administration, Border Patrol investigators went after migrant aid volunteers hard. They went after Ajo resident Scott Warren, a volunteer for No More Deaths, in particular. He was made to stand trial in federal court for allegedly harboring two undocumented migrants from Central America in a camp used by the migrant aid organization No More Deaths. At the age of 37, when he was indicted, he faced the possibility of 10 years in prison. After one jury deadlocked, Warren stood trial again in 2019 and was finally acquitted. (Warren, who currently lives in Ajo, declined my request for an interview.)

In my interview with an occasional No More Deaths (as well as Humane Borders) volunteer, Ken Sylvester, he refuted Bergquam’s claim about this organization being a communist front. Furthermore he told me he had no knowledge of No More Deaths inviting cartel members into their camp at Arivaca. As far as Bergquam’s claim about the group inviting “illegals ” into their camp and giving them maps, well, this seemed perfectly in line with their mission of preventing death in the desert.

Bergquam is hardly the only conflationist out there when it comes to border politics. Equally if not more influential in terms of his reach is Art Del Cueto, the Tucson-based host of “The Green Line” podcast, which focuses on issues related to the border. Del Cueto is also the vice president of the National Border Patrol Council, the organization which represents some BP agents.

On October 13, the day after my stint with Humane Borders ended, I listened to The Green Line as I drove east through the vast desert expanse of the Tohono O’odham Reservation towards Tucson. Often on his podcast, Del Cueto describes the uncontrolled migration that occurs on the reservation and how the national media doesn’t cover it because of its remote location and nearly impassable roads. He speaks from experience on this point, because he spent much of his career patrolling the Tohono O’odham Nation, which as of yet does not have a fortified fence along its border with Mexico, just a vehicle barrier.

In the podcast I was listening to, titled “Less Caressing, More Addressing,” Del Cueto accused Biden of caressing the border crisis. That is, he blamed the current surge in illegal crossings on the Biden administration—an accusation not without some justification because the administration’s policies have failed to stem the migration surge. 

Del Cueto never raises his voice when discussing such matters, and he mixes in a good dose of humor and cultural commentary. The Mexican-born host comes across as a sort of everyman: he’s a fan of heavy metal music, Metallica particularly, and prefers menudo (the soup, not the boy band) to tamales. He spends a lot of time talking about the difficult jobs that Border Patrol agents are tasked with, and about how BP morale is currently at rock-bottom under Biden. 

He spends a lot of time defending agents against both left wing activists and right-wing media personalities. Del Cueto describes the latter group as “bumper sticker people,” because, he claims, many of them call Border Patrol agents traitors for just abiding by U.S. immigration law. But his politics are hard right-wing, and he doesn’t hesitate to take highly-partisan dives into the culture wars. He also speculates that Middle Eastern terrorists are infiltrating the border, using the phrase “military-aged” to describe male migrants. Among his other tropes are his use of “patchouli” as an adjective to describe left-wing activists and his comparison of anti-Trump people to Tipper Gore’s Parents Music Resource Center, which doesn’t exist anymore but in the mid-’80s prodded record companies to put warning labels on CDs with suggestive lyrics. 

He expects his listeners, I suppose, to take his strained metaphors, his derogatory labeling of migrants, and his strawmanning of both immigrant advocates and Biden administration officials at face value. (These latter tendencies qualify him as a conflationist in my book.) Considering all this, it’s not surprising that Del Cueto, like Ben Bergquam, is a die-hard supporter of Donald Trump, who (again, not surprisingly) appeared on The Green Line prior to the 2016 election. While Del Cueto’s MAGA support seems of a more practical bent than Bergquam’s, they are ideologically in sync enough to have appeared on a split screen on Steve Bannon’s “War Room” show on RAV. 

An everyman Bannon is not. He’s arguably the most prominent American figure on the alt-right, a movement which critics on the Left describe as a coded neo-Nazism. As the former editor of Breitbart, a far-right website, he ran a section titled “Black Crime.” As a Trump adviser, Bannon supported legislation to reduce the numbers of legal immigrants by 50 percent. (The bill he supported along with Senator Tom Cotton, the RAISE Act, failed to advance in the Senate.) After being convicted in July of defying a congressional subpoena regarding his involvement in the January 6 insurrection, the Tucson resident is set to go to trial in May 2024 for his part in an allegedly fraudulent border wall finance scheme.

As it happens, I met two men at the White Horse Lounge in Del Rio, Texas, who would have done equally well on Bannon’s War Room split screen. I met them at midnight on October 24. I had just driven in from El Paso on some very hairy mountain roads and had almost flipped my vehicle after a near miss with a coyote. 

I was nursing a beer at the bar. The two men, a few bar stools down, were talking passionately about something and certain terms kept coming up: “border,” and “illegals” among them. I invited myself into their space, saying “Your conversation seems pretty interesting, can I join in?”

The older guy, in his mid-50s more or less, just looked at me. (I’ll just call him Joe, as he didn’t want his name used.) The younger guy, bearded, in his early 30s, seemed friendly enough. He was by far the more talkative one. “Don’t see why not,” he said. The younger one went ahead and introduced himself—I’ll call him Dave, as he didn’t want his name used either.

I moved to the barstool closest to them and introduced myself as an independent journalist, and the quieter guy asked me the name of my publication, and I told them the name of my blog.

The older guy remained quiet, but Dave told me he was a contractor who lived near Austin. He had spent several days on a ranch east of Del Rio with a bunch of guys who were affiliated with a Christian-based nonprofit organization (Dave didn’t want the name of this organization used, nor that he was acting as a spokesman for them.) Checking out their website, I got the impression that they were more gung-ho about instituting book bans in schools and preventing non-existent election fraud rather than engaging in acts of charity, say, among the homeless. However, the activities of Dave’s group—going out to ranches and fixing fences damaged by migrants and cartels—appeared more practical than ideological. While engaged in these activities, he got a first-hand look at the migration crisis.

I told them that I was also getting a first-hand look at the situation. 

I explained I was from Indianapolis but my parents lived in San Diego, where I had been spending a lot of time as of late helping my dad take care of my mom who was suffering from severe arthritis, dementia, and other health problems. I told him that I had, during my free time, reported on border issues in San Diego/Tijuana for various publications including my own blog, but I had gradually become interested in reporting on the entire border. I told them that because my sister had recently come into possession of a car that she didn’t need—who then donated it to me so I could give it to my daughter—I was thus provided with the opportunity (or excuse) to drive the entire border, driving the vehicle (a Nissan Rogue) from San Diego to Indianapolis by way of Brownsville, Texas. 

I told them that I was interested in talking to people on all sides of the migration issue along the route, especially the migrants themselves, because I knew border issues were complex ones and I didn’t want to be writing based on assumptions. I was interested, I said, in ride-alongs with local police and Border Patrol but I was unable so far to do so. (My request to Border Patrol had been declined.) However, I told them, the nonprofit aid groups were more than willing to let me volunteer. I told them I had not only volunteered with Humane Borders but also with Border Kindness near Jacumba, Calif., and Battalion Search and Rescue in the New Mexico desert west of El Paso. I told them about volunteering for these lefty organizations even though I sensed their vibe as being hard-right conservative because I was feeling reckless with my fatigue and the alcohol I had imbibed.

Dave went ahead and told me about his day. He told me about finding three women in the ranch when they were fixing up to go. The trio were just wandering around in the plains for three days; they were left out there, and one of them of them was raped. He said they were incredibly dehydrated; that his group gave them some water, and got them hooked up with the Texas Department of Public Safety. After that Dave and his group ran into Border Patrol. The Border Patrol told them they found some Iranians coming. They also told Dave and his group they fished out a couple of dead bodies in the river.

Dave said he felt insulted by those on the Left who considered people with views like his to be racist. His wife, after all, was Mexican, he told me. He also shared his view that the migration crisis was part of a larger deep state conspiracy.

“The permanent bureaucracy just gets cemented in,” he told me a month later in a phone call that repeated points he made in our conversation at the bar. “Especially when you’ve got an intelligence community as powerful as ours that basically runs crossroads with Mossad and all the Western intelligence agencies and basically is a global intelligence network. It seems, as far as I can tell, to run our government.”

During our discussion at the bar, I countered by saying I didn’t think there was one single explanation why so many migrants from all over the world were rushing the border.

Joe pointed out that I had used the term migrants as opposed to illegal aliens, and he told me that was wrong.

I told him I didn’t deny that many migrants were coming across the border illegally.

“Why are you writing in your notebook?” he asked.

I told him I was a journalist.

Joe said he didn’t want me to use his name.

Eventually Joe warmed up to me a little, told me about his friend Pedro who had taught him Spanish when he was growing up. He told me he worked in Army intelligence in Iraq. He told me he was “an interrogator” and that he had lived in South Texas his whole life. He even gave me his phone number as I had expressed to him an interest in meeting ranchers and police officials that I otherwise might not get an opportunity to talk to. But he didn’t let me know much about what he did for a living, other than he had seen Dave’s group out in the field repairing fences earlier in the day in the course of whatever work he was involved in.

He told me just shooting a few people at the border would solve the whole problem.

I paused for a moment before responding.

“What about American values?” I asked. “What about the Constitution?”

Joe just sipped his mixed drink.

The motion picture “Apocalypse Now” came to mind. I was thinking specifically of the scene when the CIA agent instructs Captain Willard over lunch—regarding the fate of one Colonel Kurtz—to “terminate with extreme prejudice.”

Not long afterwards, Dave got up to leave. He was, however, interested in making sure I got the story right (not left) and he gave me his business card. I actually called him a month later, wanting to clarify some points, and we talked for a while. I couldn’t help judging him more for the volunteer work on the border rather than his conspiratorial, conflationist mindset. During the conversation, he mentioned that he got much of his news about the border from Bergquam’s “Law and Border” show, which shouldn’t have surprised me.

A recent news report made me think of Bergquam again. It described the arrest of a 29-year-old Senegalese man by Immigration and Customs Enforcement  in New York City on Oct. 17, 2023. This man had encountered Border Patrol in the vicinity of Organ Pipe Cactus on October 3 and was released on his own recognizance, with a notice to appear. He was wanted in his home country on terrorism charges. (In fiscal 2023, 160 migrants apprehended on the southern border were on the FBI’s terrorist watch list, according to the Department of Homeland Security.) I suppose this arrest might go some way in validating Bergquam’s (and Del Cueto’s) concerns about “military-aged” migrants crossing the border illegally. Then again, even a broken clock is right two times a day, as they say. I also thought about Bergquam after I recently received a text from Humane Borders volunteer Carol Wingo, who told me anti-migrant vigilantes had been spotted in the area.

I wondered if these guys were “Law and Border” fans.

I should mention that I also called Joe, the day after our conversation in the bar. He didn’t pick up so I left a message. I was convinced he was a human Rolodex. I wanted him to give me names of people to talk to and their phone numbers. I wasn’t surprised when I didn’t hear back.

When I think about Joe now, I wonder how many like him will be ready to go, locked and loaded, on day one of a likely Trump administration 2.0.