Interview with John Sanders, Blue Iris Fund
John Sanders joined the U.S. Customs & Border Protection as Chief Operating Officer and became Acting Commissioner in 2019. His experiences in his role, and particularly the tragic deaths of three children — Jakelin, Felipe, and Carlos — are what triggered him to try and find a smarter and more humane way to address the underlying issues of migration.
Glasswing International: Can you please tell me a little bit about yourself and your professional background/your line(s) of work?
John Sanders: I believe in giving back. My faith is important to me. I tend to be an optimistic person and I believe that there is a higher purpose at the end of the day. And it’s not just about accumulating wealth. Your family is very important, community is very important, religion is very important to me.
And so, all that combined in about 2010, I got asked to serve in the federal government as the Chief Technology Officer at the Transportation Security Administration. I went and did that as a way to give back. I left TSA at the end of 2014 and went back to the private sector. And then in 2018 I got tapped on the shoulder to serve again and went to U.S. Customs and Border Protection as the Chief Operating Officer and eventually became the Acting Commissioner.
I had never done anything in that particular area of law enforcement or immigration before. When I was asked to be the Acting Commissioner by Acting Secretary McAleenan – he said ‘you’re the right person because I trust you and you’re smart’ but what he said that will always stick with me is, ‘in all my interactions with you, you always treat people with respect. And at the end of the day, the men and women of CBP need that more than anything else right now.’
I think that story says more about him than it does about me. For me, that message really ties back to the immigrants at the border. When I was Acting Commissioner I would say that for whatever reason people are coming to the U.S., they need to be treated humanely, with dignity, with respect – and I always added in, “with love” because that gets to the heart of my faith.
If you have empathy for people it makes so many of these difficult discussions that we are grappling with, issues that are hard because if they weren’t they would have been solved long ago, easier to talk about so hopefully we can find some solutions to these very difficult problems.
To that point, I remember sitting with some people and I said the three names of the children [who had died] It was actually with somebody who was very anti-CBP, and the individual stopped and said ‘You know, that’s the first time I’ve heard someone in CBP use the children’s names,’ and I said ‘Well, we should use their names. There are children dying.’
And, you know, it didn’t make us best buddies by any stretch of the imagination. But, the individual said to me afterwards ‘I don’t agree with what you are doing, but I really appreciate how you are approaching this, and at least I can tell that you are genuine and that you do care, and I wish you luck.’
Glasswing: What inspired you to create The Blue Iris Fund and start this process of working with children and families affected by migration?
John: While I was at CBP I had a few experiences. As I said earlier, my faith is important, and loving people I think is very important. You can only change the world a person at a time. And it makes a difference if you have an impact on one person’s life –that’s a great thing. I also think each day will provide you with opportunities to do something good. That’s the optimist in me. I try to look for those opportunities to do the right thing, if you will.
The most transformational experience were the deaths of the children, but Carlos in particular, in May of 2019. And Carlos’s death was so transformational because what I decided I needed to do was sit and watch the video of his last hours.
And this is where it gets hard. To watch a child in a cell… and you have children and so do I, to die from the flu, is terrible.
That was the final trigger although I stayed for a while longer and tried to do things. But those images are etched in my memory and they will always be etched in my memory. And because of that, I knew I had to do more. You can’t give up. You have to keep going because that should never happen again.
I certainly felt that beyond this administration, we, as Americans, have failed these people in multiple ways. Starting with helping them from a security and prosperity perspective in their countries. These people want a better life and they are willing to go through incredible hardships to find that.
Once they had gotten here — to the most prosperous country in the world — and then they die in our custody from something that you and I would ensure never happened to our children. That failure as a country needs to be addressed and more people need to get involved.
In 2019, it was on the front pages, but now it’s not on the front pages. I think it’s going to come back because people will always want to come to the US. Starting the Blue Iris fund is therefore not just a short-term thing, it’s a long-term commitment. We have to do more to make sure these types of deaths never happen again.
Glasswing: When you left were you already thinking of the fund or was that an idea that came up a little later?
John: Yeah. The idea started to form before I left, a lot of it formed because at the time, I was dealing with numerous members of Congress in an effort to get additional funding to respond to the humanitarian crisis. The head of the House appropriations committee was a woman named Lucille Roybal-Allard. I’ll never forget one day when I was explaining why CBP needed more money and she turned to her staff and said, ‘give him what he needs because I believe he’s going to do the right thing.’
I didn’t see that about me, that was about people like Chairwoman Roybal-Allard wanting to help. They got it and they saw it was helping the kids and the families.
So the idea of a non-profit started to form because of interactions with caring people like that. When I left public service, I started to think about this more and I decided I was going to do something. I first thought about starting my own non-profit, based on a United Way model. But I speak high-school Spanish, and I knew I couldn’t do the things I needed to properly do from an impact perspective.
This is where it gets back to my faith since I don’t believe in coincidence. I was invited to a small dinner at José Andrés’s house (Chef Andrés) and Celina and Ken were there. That evening made it clear that I needed to find a way to work with them.
Glasswing: That is how you came in touch with Ken & Celina from Glasswing, why did you feel working with the organization was a good fit?
John: I talked to them a number of times after the dinner and I was really impressed by what they were doing. The thing that started to form in my mind was “why go off and set something up yourself when you can team up with these incredible people and this incredible organization?”
I understood that the benefit that I could bring is that I happen to know a lot of caring people and that they have networks themselves. I also have a story to tell. So if that helps raise money for these people that I trust, an organization that is trying to do the very things that matter to me. In short, I was really focused on the children, especially the children returned to Mexico as part of the MPP program, and I thought Glasswing would make that possible.
I also thought there was significant value in the fact that Glasswing was already actively helping people. When I left there were about 50,000 people waiting in Mexico to get their hearing. They were in some of the toughest areas. I tried to travel to those towns with CBP but they wouldn’t let me unless I had armored cars with guards. Of those 50,000 people, 14,000 were children and over 4,000 were under the age of five. I didn’t want to wait for the non-profit process to play out.
So as things went on, and I spent more time talking to Ken and Celina., I decided that this is the way we can help do things quicker and more broadly than just at the border. Because at the end of the day, people shouldn’t have to emigrate if they don’t want to. If they want to, that’s great, but they shouldn’t feel like they have to.
I also loved what you all are doing in schools, whether it’s in El Salvador or Honduras or wherever. That’s wonderful work and it’s going to provide opportunities for children at the end of the day.
Glasswing: During the civil war in El Salvador, a lot of families were torn apart. Having families separated, whether it’s at the border or whether it’s in their countries of origin, it leads to a lot of the problems these countries have now.
John: I agree. I think that’s so right. I spent a lot of time on the US-side of the southern border and in El Paso in particular. There is a wonderful gentleman there by the name of Ruben Garcia who runs an organization called Annunciation House and he helps immigrants by finding shelters and getting them away from the border.
In one of those visits with Ruben at Annunciation House, he introduced me to a gentleman that had come from Honduras. This man had come across the border with his son. Ruben was translating because my Spanish isn’t good enough.
The story basically was that this father had a business, he was middle-class. It was a family business, he loved the country, he didn’t want to move. But one day a gang came to the house and said “you’re going to start paying us protection money and your son is going to join the gang or we are going to kill him.” He left Honduras the next day with his son. But he left his wife and daughter in Honduras because he needed to leave very quickly with his son. He then got quiet and was looking off in the distance. He finally said, “the difference between me and most Americans is that you don’t know what it’s like to lose everything. You can go to the police and you have options. We don’t have options. I didn’t want to leave. I didn’t want to leave my house. I didn’t want to leave my business. I didn’t want to leave my wife and daughter, but I had no choice if I wanted my son to live.”
That experience drove it home. It’s just one story, but it is such a powerful story. He wanted to be back in his country, but there was nobody to go to that could help him.
It made me think. I can’t even comprehend. We live, or I live, in a very different environment. It just really stuck with me. I would hear similar stories again and again and again. This is just one story and it’s really personal, and I don’t want to take away from this story, but there were unfortunately thousands of people that had very similar stories. To my earlier point, we have to do better.
Glasswing: What did you feel was a good fit about working with Glasswing and how will our work together change the current issues children and families face?
John: There are a couple of things.
1) They are helping people in their home countries. There are a lot of people that want to help people when they come to the US. There are a lot of different organizations that are out there, whether it’s on the border or in communities like San Antonio or other locations. And I thought that was an important part. People should have the right to stay home…there was that connection.
2) As I’ve mentioned already, I’m very focused on the children. I’m very focused on the children because an adult has a choice. Children usually don’t have the choice. I mean the child isn’t making the choice that they want to emigrate. That’s not to say that I’m questioning the adult’s or the parent’s judgement. I’m just highlighting that for children, I believe they need certain things, which is the third point.
3) I think children need a safe environment because children need to feel safe. They need good nutrition so they can grow up healthy. They need access to healthcare, and they need an education because that is what is going to fuel opportunities in the future.
I thought those things were all consistent with the core values of Glasswing.
The final thing was that I knew from my time at CBP that the cartels along the border were fundamentally running travel agencies to reach out to people and promise them things that was often not true and then profiting from them.
Each month, depending on the sources, the cartels were making up to a billion dollars at the peak of the immigration crisis in 2019.
And I saw Glasswing was trying to do things to help these people from a prosperity and security perspective for families and children.
It was also alignment in other areas. Not just at the border, too. For the things that I cared about — for the children and those four pillars, Glasswing was the complete solution and we were very aligned about how to address some of the core problems. And they were doing it in an apolitical way, working with democrats and republicans. They weren’t trying to just bash the Trump administration – not that they were shying away from bad policies — but they were doing it in a very civil way.
That was important to me because so much of this problem right now, certainly in America, is because it is hard to have a civil discussion. If someone disagrees with you, they name-call you. People don’t seem to recognize that it’s okay to have different beliefs, that you can stil work on coming to a compromise or a solution. Glasswing was having success discussing these tough issues and that appealed to me.
Glasswing: Are there any other interactions with migrants that you wanted to bring up? Anything else that drove you to become part of the solution?
John: Yes. Several of the interactions I witnessed occurred in the Rio Grande Valley, in Texas. There is a facility there called The Central Processing Center, or CPC.
Two in particular interactions come to mind.
One good, one bad. One was a sixteen-year-old boy who had come across and was in the facility and he was waiting to pass onto the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to a shelter. I was there with a reporter from The Washington Post – Nick Miroff if you’ve ever read any of Nick’s stories. His Spanish was better than mine, so I was trusting him for the translation.
But this young man was crying because he had been there for four days. He was told a very different story than what occurred, than what he had experienced. The coyotes or whatever you want to call them said that when he crossed, he’d be released…and he wasn’t released. And he had just learned that he was going to be in custody until he was 18. He had no option to go home, he had to stay in custody until he was 18 and then he would be returned. He just wanted to go back to his family because that is not what he signed up for, but there was no mechanism for him to get back to his family because now he was this unaccompanied child. Terrible story.
Glasswing: What happened to him?
John: He was transferred to Health and Human Services and I assume he’s still in a shelter. Once you’re in the shelter you can be released to a sponsor, a parent or close relative, I don’t know if he had that.
He thought he was going to be held somewhere, not in a jail setting, in a shelter for two years and he wanted to see his family.
To the point that you made earlier, which I think is a great point… That is where people find their ‘family’ with gangs or other groups. They are going to find it somewhere if they don’t aren’t getting it from their true family unity. Children need to be kept with their families.
The other story makes my heart happy although it was a terrible ordeal. It was a mother and her son who was four years old. They had come across the border and the son was telling me this story – an outgoing, lovable little boy.
We were separated by fencing that blocks you from the kids at the CPC, and he was at the fence and he was talking to me. There was someone with me — I had a security detail — and one of the guys was speaking to the child for me. My Spanish isn’t very good and when I’m speaking to a child it’s even harder. The little boy was telling us about the ordeal and how bad it was, but he was telling us that from the vantage point of a four-year-old and how exciting it was.
And how when they swam across the Rio Grande river his mom was really scared, but he was brave and he helped her through it… so it was this brave, proud little boy – great story from that perspective — but so sad that this four-year-old boy swam across a deadly river and had seen other bad things. Even though he’s telling it from an excited, proud to be protecting his mother perspective, his mother is in the background shaking her head and quietly saying no it wasn’t, no it wasn’t fun.
And she had this — I don’t want to say it was a look of terror because that would be melodramatic – but she had been through tough experiences – and although this little boy makes me smile when I think about him, it also reminds me of the four pillars. I liken it to a lost generation of children in some sense. In 2019 there were 15,000 unaccompanied children, and tens of thousands of additional children, that migrated to the US and experienced such difficult hardships. I don’t think we know the impacts on those children because of the experiences they went through.
Glasswing: Is there anything else you want to let us know or that is very relevant to the work that we plan on doing together? Anything else that is near and dear to your heart that we didn’t talk about?
1) Roughly 80% of the men and women in the Border Patrol have Hispanic heritage. When I talk in my letter about the love and compassion that I saw, it is not to say that everyone is perfect there because it’s a big organization. However, they are parents, mothers and fathers, and many of them come from the border communities. There is a toll that is being paid by them as a result of these policies. And I think that in addition to humanizing the immigrants we need to humanize the people who are trying to do a job but also have significant compassion. I saw amazing acts of compassion by many of those individuals.
2) The other thing is we talk a lot about the immigration crisis. I always thought there were three types of crises occurring though. It was certainly an immigration crisis, but there was also a humanitarian crisis and a policy crisis. We touched a lot on humanitarian crisis. –There were a lot of deaths that occurred, a lot of adults – and even if people don’t die, there are rapes and other things that occur because bad people are preying on these individuals. More needs to be done with regards to the policy crisis though, even though it is hard and the country is very polarized on this topic.
Glasswing: What is something you would be proud of 10 or 20 years down the line?
John Sanders: This is a great question. Well, we are just starting. I’ve pledged $1 million dollars to the Blue Iris Fund. I would love to see a sustaining fund of $10 million dollars a year – every year through grants, through fundraising – that kind of level coming in.
Where I would feel like this has been a huge success – is that there are children that were benefactors of something that this fund did, that are working for Glasswing and paying it forward, if you will. That, to me, would be the ultimate success if we not only helped somebody, but they have decided to give a portion of their life — whether it’s a week or a year or full-time — to help others. That to me is ultimately where the success will come from.