What do an F-16 pilot, a naval intelligence officer, a marine, and an air force operations intel analyst have in common? We were all on a team of veterans that went to a refugee camp at the US/Mexico border in January 2020 to listen, learn and lend a hand with Human Rights First and Veterans for American Ideals.
We spent most of our time listening to and learning from asylum seekers in a sprawling tent city just a few hundred feet from the US border in Mexico.
Before I share more I want to be clear about a few things. I sincerely respect those who serve on the border. Just like our military they have a tough mission that is often driven by the politics of the day. That doesn’t mean any of us get a free pass as we ultimately have a moral responsibility to do what is right but the problems at the border are largely geopolitical, span multiple administrations, and are tangled in economic, criminal, medical and cultural disparities going back hundreds of years. This isn’t a problem created by the rank & file.
Having said that, there is so much more each of us can do to alleviate the human suffering happening in our backyard and on our watch. We’ve taken a horrible situation in Central America and made it worse by forcing some very vulnerable people to stay in a region that is effectively under the operational control of the cartels.
The tent city starts right next to the border with some tents tied off directly to the bridge on the Mexican side and run right down to the Rio Grande in full view of the border fence. Up until January of last year asylum seekers could remain safely in the US while their applications were reviewed but now 2500 of them are forced to stay nearby in this makeshift camp. They fear leaving the border due to the high rates of kidnapping by criminal gangs and the extreme difficulty in getting back in time for their next hearing. The UN and Red Cross apparently want nothing to do with the situation due to political sensitivities on both sides of the border so many of the camp services are organized organically by the various national groups within the camp and some dedicated (and inspiring) NGOs.