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Clandestine Crossings
Trinity sociologist documents the experiences of migrants who cross the border illegally and the human coyotes who guide them into South Texas    

By Russell Guerrero ’83

Peter O'Brien at the Pergamum in Turkey.
Professor David Spener

In the often heated debate over immigration and undocumented workers in the United States, one voice has been noticeably missing – the voice of the migrants themselves. Now David Spener, associate professor of sociology and anthropology, has recorded their stories and the reasons they cross the border and stay in the United States for a book titled Clandestine Crossings: Migrants and Coyotes on the Texas-Mexico Border (Cornell University Press, 2009).

Professor Spener spent eight years doing field work on both sides of the border, talking to and documenting the lives of the people who take incredible risks to come into the U.S., as well as the people who enable them to make the journey.

Professor Spener used a wide range of contacts and referrals to speak to migrants. “People would vouch for me and say ‘look this guy is not a government agent, he’s not a member of the mafia, he’s a college professor who is writing a book. He is interested in telling your story.’”

Many were willing to talk in part because they did not see what they are doing as either shameful or criminal. Professor Spener said that in many Mexican towns almost every able-bodied male makes the trip across the border, either by taking a dangerous hike across the desert or by hiding in the trunk of a car, because there are few opportunities for work in Mexico. They take the risks to support themselves and to support their families. And because crossing the border has become so difficult and costly, instead of staying for several months, many migrants remain for several years, becoming a permanent undocumented population in the United States.

Talking to coyotes, the guides who help migrants across the border, was more complicated. When Professor Spener approached people he believed to be coyotes, many would say they were no longer in the business. Some would not talk at all.

However, Professor Spener said that all migrants know someone who has worked as a coyote. “It’s an open secret in the migrant community,” he said. “A lot of coyotes out there are not looked at as being scary, fearsome individuals in their community.” However, they may not be entirely trusted, he added.

In addition to speaking to migrants and coyotes, Professor Spener also spoke to others directly involved in the immigration issue including Border Patrol agents, immigration lawyers, and politicians. Still, he feels the strength of Clandestine Crossings is giving a voice to the migrants who have no opportunity to speak for themselves. They remain silent, Professor Spener said, because they have no connections to people with influence and power. The language barrier and their lack of legal status also make them vulnerable.

“Part of what I am trying to do is to have people understand that this business of migrants and coyotes is not necessarily some sinister, organized crime phenomenon,” said Professor Spener. “There is a much more complex reality than that. And I think understanding that complexity is important so that we are not basing policies on stereotype, conjecture, xenophobia, and fear.”

Professor Spener has created a companion Web site for his book that contains a collection of oral histories of migrants and coyotes that can be found at

Courses Taught

  • Social Theory
  • Social Problems
  • La Sustentabilidad en América Latina [sustainability in Latin America]
  • Contemporary Minorities
  • Globalization and International Development
  • Relaciones Fronterizas: México-Estados Unidos [Mexico-U.S. Border Relations]
  • Embracing San Antonio: Cultura y comunidad

Selected Publications

Clandestine Crossings: Migrants and Coyotes on the Texas-Mexico Border, Cornell University Press, 2009.

Free Trade and Uneven Development: The North American Apparel Industry after NAFTA. Editor, with Gary Gereffi and Jennifer Bair, Temple University Press, 2002.

The U.S.-Mexico Border: Transcending Divisions, Contesting Identities. Editor, with Kathleen Staudt, Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1998.

© 2009 Trinity University

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