Veteran Who Served in Iraq and Afghanistan Left Shaken by Visit to 'Remain in Mexico' Camp: 'It's Like a Warzone With No One in Charge'

As an Air Force veteran who enlisted straight after high school and went on to serve her country for more than a decade, Pam Campos-Palma has seen a lot in her 32 years. Having been deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan, where she specialized in counter-violence and extremism as an intelligence analyst, she says: "I've seen the worst of the worst."

Yet, for all her military experience, Campos-Palma says nothing could have prepared her for what she saw this week, when she decided to join a group of veterans traveling south of the border to Matamoros, where thousands of asylum seekers have been forced to wait for months in makeshift camps while their cases are processed in the U.S.

"It feels like a warzone," Campos-Palma, who visited the camp with fellow veterans as part of the nonpartisan group Veterans for American Ideals, told Newsweek on Thursday. But, in many ways, she said, "it's worse."

The first thing that struck the Air Force veteran was how close the Mexican border town was to Texas. Just a short walk across a bridge and Campos-Palma said she felt like she had entered another world; one where men and women walked around with visible wounds, often from being kidnapped and assaulted by criminal groups permeating the area, while children, who were so malnourished they looked years younger than they really were, lied sick in their tents, while others played "in the dirt."

"It was overwhelming," Campos-Palma said. "The magnitude of humanitarian disaster strikes you right away."

'Warzone with no one in charge'

With virtually no sign of Mexican or U.S. government efforts to ensure the safety or care of the thousands forced to wait in Mexican border towns, humanitarian groups have been left to fill the gaps by themselves, racing to provide shelter, food and water to asylum seekers.

"It's like a warzone with no one in charge," Campos-Palma said. "I saw lines of about, let's say 35 people, including parents holding babies, just waiting in line to get two bananas that had been donated. It was overwhelming."

Not only was Campos-Palma taken aback by the conditions that already-vulnerable children, women and men were being forced to live in at the makeshift detention camp, she was also struck by the sense of fear that filled the air.

Matamoros, she noted, is in the Tamaulipas State of Mexico, a place that the U.S. government advises its own citizens never to go. The State Department gives the region a "level 4" travel advisory, the same level of caution that it affords to all of Syria.

In Tamaulipas' case, the State Department warns, Americans should "not travel due to crime and kidnapping." Organized crime activity, including "gun battles, murder, armed robbery, carjacking, kidnapping, forced disappearances, extortion and sexual assault," it says, are common along the northern border. Meanwhile, criminal groups also "target public and private passenger buses as well as private automobiles traveling through Tamaulipas, often taking passengers hostage and demanding ransom payments," it says.

Americans who do travel to Tamaulipas, the State Department warns, should be aware of "heavily armed members of criminal groups," who patrol the areas "and operate with impunity, particularly along the border region."

'I know what danger is'

Despite the dangers, however, Tamaulipas is also the state that the U.S. government has forced thousands of asylum seekers seeking refuge in the U.S. to wait for months while their asylum cases are processed under its Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), now more commonly known as the "Remain in Mexico" policy.

As of Saturday, a year will have passed since the policy came into place, despite immigration and human rights groups repeatedly warning that the rule has put the lives of tens of thousands of asylum seekers in danger.

According to a report released this week by Human Rights First, U.S. immigration officers have sent more than 57,000 asylum seekers and migrants to wait in Mexico under MPP, with at least 25,000 of those forced to wait in Matamoros and Nuevo Laredo in the notoriously dangerous Tamaulipas state.

So far, Human Rights First has documented at least 816 public reports of murder, rape, torture, kidnapping or other violent attacks against asylum seekers and migrants returned to Mexico under MPP.

Speaking to Newsweek on Thursday, Kennji Kizuka, a senior researcher with Human Rights First's refugee protection team who accompanied veterans on their visit to Matamoros, said those who joined the trip came away with the realization that "this is a humanitarian issue...This isn't a security threat."

Being people "who fought for and risked their lives to defend" American values and freedom, "based on what they saw this week, they were really horrified and disappointed to see how we're treating refugees at our border."

Pam Campos-Palma, an Air Force veteran and Sean Horgan, a USMC vet, both members of Veterans for American Ideals and Kennji Kizuka of Human Rights First walk through the camp of asylum seekers forced to wait in Matamoros, Mexico due to the Trump administration's 'Remain in Mexico' policy. Human Rights First

The danger asylum seekers face in Matamoros, Campos-Palma said, is something that she could feel as soon as she entered the camp. As a former intelligence analyst trained to look out for signs of danger, the veteran said she felt it everywhere at the makeshift site.

"I've been deployed and that's the thing that kept coming up for me: I know what danger is. I specialized in counter-violence and extremism and I've seen the worst of the worst," Campos-Palma said. "I've been to warzones and yet, I felt in fear."

Shortly after arriving at the camp, the veteran said she could feel "eyes" on her group. "We kind of stuck out because we were a bunch of Americans and I started feeling eyes on us."

"Some people were curious," she said. But others who appeared to be visitors to the camp, she added, gave her the kind of looks that she had once been trained to look out for.

"There were times when I felt cartel members were around, watching us," she said. "There was one man whose face I probably won't ever forget. He looked like he had been beaten. His face was really disfigured and he looked at me in the way that the military had trained me to look out for. I remember us registering that, that this guy is working, whether willingly or not, for the cartels."

Volunteers from Reynosa, Mexico serve a meal to asylum seekers at an immigrant camp on December 08, 2019 in the border town of Matamoros, Mexico. John Moore/Getty

While Campos-Palma said she feared for her own safety, it was not her primary concern.

"I was speaking to a child that was literally telling me they were sleeping in a tent there for months, in a place where there's clearly abundant rape, assault and kidnapping."

Another veteran who has been volunteering at Matamoros for some time, she said, told her of how "little girls would share that someone had come up to them and physically sized them up. They were assessing them to be trafficked and saying, 'oh, you're tall enough, you'll do.'"

The fact that children, women and men are being kidnapped, raped, physically beaten and extorted, she said, should not come as a surprise. "It's common knowledge that this is happening and that these children are not only living in inhumane conditions but that they are in danger."

Who is responsible?

Throughout her time in Matamoros, Campos-Palma said she could not shake an important question: Who is responsible?

"For me, the biggest question I have is: who's accountable, then?" she said. "There was no real security...there's not organization or protection and there are severe security risks every, to me what that says is that this an egregiously dangerous situation. It feels criminally negligent."

"This policy is forcing people to wait for months and become targets of kidnapping, trafficking and torture," she said. "And it seems that the purpose is to block and bar people from seeking asylum...It definitely feels like the objective here is to wear people down to the point that they leave and that there's no real care that harm, violence or even death is a result of that."

Asked by Newsweek to respond to the concerns that have been raised throughout the year that has passed since the Remain in Mexico policy was brought into place, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesperson said the agency "stands by the Migrant Protection Protocols."

Asserting that the protocols play "an important role in addressing the loopholes in our current asylum laws," the spokesperson said that with the MPP in place, asylum seekers will no longer be able to "disappear into the U.S." before a decision could be made on their claims.

"Every month, tens of thousands of individuals arrive at the U.S Southern Border, many of them attempting to enter illegally. Historically these individuals have been paroled into the U.S. to wait for their asylum hearings which could take years," they said. "One goal of MPP is to discourage the abuse of U.S. laws as well as non-meritorious or false asylum claims."

"MPP amenable aliens will not be permitted to disappear into the U.S. before a court issues a final decision on their claim for protection under U.S. law. Instead, they wait in Mexico," the CBP spokesperson said. "This allows the United States to more effectively administer its laws, including assisting legitimate asylum seekers and individuals fleeing persecution, while also ensuring that aliens with non-meritorious or even fraudulent claims no longer have an incentive for making the journey."

Pam Campos-Palma an Air Force veteran and a member of Veterans for American Ideals and Kennji Kizuka of Human Rights First walk through the camp in Matamoros, Mexico. Veterans For American Ideals

For Campos-Palma, whose own family is from Honduras, a country many Central American asylum seekers are now fleeing to escape gang violence, extortion, poverty and corruption, the use of fear and real danger to deter immigration to the U.S. is not what the veteran fought for.

"My mother immigrated to the U.S. from Honduras...She was the one who encouraged me to join the military, so it's hard to think about it because I found myself thinking, these are our people," the veteran said. "It's only luck and chance that removes me from being one of those kids."

Recalling one small child she had met at the camp, the veteran said: "I just kept wondering who is responsible here if this child gets kidnapped or raped tonight? Who is accountable for that...And as someone who served our country and our government, I can't help but feel anger that it's our own government...and that we are complicit in perpetuating that danger."