Migrants were left for dead in a Mexican detention center. Was it a preventable tragedy?

People place candles outside of the Migration Institute after a fire broke out at the facility killing at least 39 migrants in the Mexican northern border city of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, on March 28, 2023. | Christian Torres/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

A deadly fire that killed 38 migrants has led to international calls for an investigation.

At least 38 migrants died in a fire Monday at a migrant detention center in Ciudad Juárez, just across the Texas border, the Mexican government announced. It’s one of the deadliest incidents in immigration detention in recent history, and it’s evidence of the Mexican government’s limited capacity to care for and process migrants who have been shut out of the US through years of restrictive border policies.

In a news conference Monday night, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador claimed that the migrants, after finding out that they were going to be deported, had put mattresses at the door of the shelter and set them on fire in protest. “They did not imagine that this was going to cause this terrible misfortune,” López Obrador said.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres has called for a “thorough investigation” of the tragedy. And immigrant advocates have raised concerns about security footage obtained by El Universal that shows a security guard and another man in a National Institute of Migration uniform leaving the scene of the fire without releasing migrants from their cells. A local journalist, Joaquín López Doriga, confirmed that the video was authentic in an interview with Adán Augusto López, Mexico’s interior secretary.

“Mexican officials and others are blaming the victims without any evidence,” Guerline Jozef, co-founder and executive director of the advocacy group Haitian Bridge Alliance, said in a statement. “We hope that immediate steps are taken, including criminal penalties if warranted, to prevent another tragedy like this.”

In addition to those who were killed, another 30 migrants were injured and sent to nearby hospitals. On Tuesday, Mexican immigration authorities managed to identify the victims who died or were injured in the blaze, which included 28 Guatemalans, 13 Hondurans, 12 Salvadorans, 13 Venezuelans, a Colombian, and an Ecuadorian.

Protests in immigration detention aren’t uncommon. Hunger strikes broke out at two immigrant detention facilities in California in March over low wages, long waits for medical treatment, and rotten food. But rarely do these protests have as deadly consequences as in the case of Monday’s fire.

Immigrant advocates accuse US policies of endangering migrants

Immigrant advocates have accused the Biden administration of putting migrants waiting in Mexico in harm’s way by turning them away at the border en masse. Jozef urged the Biden administration to “open the ports of entry to allow asylum seekers to seek protection so that no one has to wait in dangerous and vulnerable conditions at the US-Mexico border anymore.”

The administration will soon sunset a controversial pandemic-era border enforcement policy that has kept millions of asylum seekers from entering the country. That pandemic-era rule, known as Title 42, was initiated by former President Donald Trump on dubious public health grounds in 2020 and is set to end in May. In short, it allowed the US to rapidly expel migrants on the basis that they would spread Covid-19, even well after cross-border travel resumed.

In lieu of Title 42, the administration has proposed a new way to limit migrant border crossings. The rule would require migrants to schedule an appointment on the CBP One smartphone app to enter the US through an official border crossing or show that they were already denied asylum in Mexico or another country. If they fail to do so, the migrants would be turned away. It would go into effect for two years, with the possibility of an extension.

But some Senate Democrats have urged the administration to withdraw that proposed rule on the basis that it would likely violate federal asylum law.

The fire shows how Mexico’s immigration system is under strain

US policy isn’t solely to blame for the adverse conditions in Mexico that may have contributed to the tragedy at the migrant detention center. As a result of Trump-era policies that have largely continued under the Biden administration, there are now more migrants than ever waiting in Mexican border cities to enter the US as a result of policies pursued by the Trump and Biden administrations. As of late December, there were a record estimated 20,000 migrants waiting in Juárez alone.

But Michelle Mittelstadt, a spokesperson for the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, said the Mexican government can invest more in expanding its capacity to accommodate migrant populations that include families and unaccompanied children.

“[T]he Mexican government has an obligation to improve the conditions of migrant centers and collaborate with international organizations to provide basic services and protection — in particular when accepting return of migrants from the United States,” she said.

A network of NGOs and state agencies have provided most of the funding for humanitarian aid for migrants, but the available resources are inconsistent across Mexican cities.

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