The deaths of at least 38 Central and South Americans in a fire in a Mexican government migrant detention facility in Ciudad Juárez this week show the worst possible consequences of current U.S. border expulsion policies and Mexican enforcement policies, both of which are focused on detention and deterrence. Given that the victims died in Mexican custody in a city to which, with the Mexican government’s acceptance, the U.S. government expels migrants and asylum seekers, this tragedy is an urgent call for both governments to change course and to protect migrants’ lives.
Yet, shockingly, U.S. officials have instead reacted by alluding to the fire as a “risk” of irregular migration and stating that migrants should follow “legal pathways,” while Mexico’s president López Obrador described the tragedy as the product of migrants protesting in a “shelter.”
While information continues to come to light, Mexican media report that some of the migrants locked up in the facility had been expelled into Mexico by U.S. authorities under Title 42, which denies the right to seek asylum at the U.S. border unless migrants are able to secure a limited number of appointments through a flawed cell phone app to ask for an exemption to the policy. Expulsions and limits to accessing asylum in the United States are, in any case, a routine practice at the El Paso-Ciudad Juárez border.
U.S. policies are blocking people’s ability to request asylum, which is a legal migration pathway and a human right. In this case, the victims lost their lives while locked up in Mexican government custody. Yet official responses from Biden administration officials characterized the fire as a “painful reminder of the risks of irregular migration,” even stating, “those who wish to migrate must do so through legal pathways.” When asked about the safety of migrants detained in Mexico, a State Department spokesperson evaded the question and referred in broad terms to the risks of migration, adding at one point, “I am not speaking about this incident specifically, but broadly, those who chose to transit anywhere irregularly put themselves at risk.”
Such responses imply that the migrants died because they chose to put themselves at risk by migrating without a legal status, when in fact they died in preventable circumstances in Mexican government custody, in a context in which they did not or presumably would not have had access to a legal pathway to seek asylum in the United States.
For its part, Mexico’s National Migration Institute (Instituto Nacional de Migración, INM) has failed to adequately address countless recommendations made by civil society organizations, the National Human Rights Commission (Comisión Nacional de los Derechos Humanos, CNDH), and other bodies regarding the deplorable conditions in many of its detention centers. These include a 2020 fire in a detention center in Tenosique, Tabasco that resulted in the death of one migrant, and multiple cases of lack of adequate food, water, and medical care, as well as torture by INM agents and security officials.
Currently available information suggests that when the fire began in the Ciudad Juárez facility the night of March 27 in an area holding 68 men, officials in the facility left the migrants locked up, despite having the obligation to react immediately to protect their lives while they were under custody.
Threats to migrants and asylum seekers expelled into Mexican border cities are myriad and well known. Since January 2021, people expelled under Title 42 have suffered over 13,000 publicly reported attacks, including kidnappings, rape, and murder. Added to criminal violence, migrants in Mexico face extortion and abuse from authorities, as well as the risk of being detained. Even though international standards dictate that detention should be the exception rather than the rule for migrants, the Mexican government uses detention as a large-scale response to migration.
This week’s tragedy is a brutal expression of border policies that close access to protection and trap people in places where they may face violence and danger at the hands of criminal organizations and Mexican officials. Closing off access to asylum for families and individuals fleeing for survival is illegal. Implying that the deadly results of detention and deterrence policies are a consequence of the victims’ not having taken legal pathways or of their own actions is unacceptable.
The Biden administration should promptly restore access to asylum, abandoning not only Title 42 but also plans for transit bans, reliance on a flawed app with insufficient appointments, and other measures that would keep the border closed to the most vulnerable migrants and return them to peril. For its part, the Mexican government should cease to be an accomplice in policies that restrict access to asylum at the border, and should ensure that detention of migrants is the exception rather than the rule. Mexican authorities should take urgent measures to investigate and hold accountable those responsible for this tragedy and to ensure non-repetition in the future.