With this series of weekly updates, WOLA seeks to cover the most important developments at the U.S.-Mexico border. See past weekly updates here.
- A horrific tragedy at a Ciudad Juárez migrant detention center, in which 39 (so far) perished in a fire while locked inside, drew attention to the treatment that migrants in Mexican border cities are receiving as they remain stranded by new blocks on access to asylum.
- Organizations and individuals submitted over 50,000 public comments on the Biden administration’s draft rule banning asylum for most non-Mexican migrants who do not seek it in other countries along the way, or who do not opt for other narrow pathways. Below are links to dozens of organizational comments.
Tragic fire in Ciudad Juárez detention facility
The fire started at about 10:00 PM on March 27 at the Mexican federal government’s National Migration Institute (INM) provisional detention center, which sits along the U.S.-Mexico border at the foot of the Stanton Street bridge between El Paso and Ciudad Juárez.
Mexico’s National Prosecutor’s Office reported on March 28 that the dead and injured included 28 people from Guatemala, 13 from Honduras, 12 from Venezuela, 12 from El Salvador, and 1 each from Colombia and Ecuador. Citizens of all of these countries, except for Colombia and Ecuador, are currently subject to rapid expulsion into Mexico, under the still-in-force Title 42 pandemic authority, if U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) or Border Patrol encounter them in the United States.
At a March 28 news conference, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said that the detained migrants themselves started the fire, in protest after being told of their probable deportation back to their home countries. “At the door of the shelter, they put mattresses and set them on fire, and they did not imagine that this was going to cause a terrible misfortune,” the President said.
Later on the 28th, very troubling security camera footage from the detention center began circulating on social media. It depicts flames and smoke engulfing an area behind bars and doors, while guards exit the facility without unlocking or opening the doors. Mexican authorities confirmed the video’s authenticity.
The Associated Press reported that Jorge Vázquez Campbell, an attorney representing some of the victims, filed a complaint with Mexican federal investigators making an explosive allegation: that the INM’s delegate for the state of Chihuahua ordered subordinates to prohibit the detainees from leaving. The delegate, Salvador González Guerrero, is a retired Mexican Navy rear admiral.
The AP account further cited the attorney:
Campbell said his clients told him that one of the detained migrants asked a guard for a cigarette and a lighter and then five migrants who had been detained that day began to protest.
“The officials made fun of them, they got irritated, and two of them (migrants) set a mattress on fire,” Campbell said.
That was the moment, Campbell said, that immigration agents at the facility notified González of the fire and he “told them not to do anything and under no circumstances should they let them leave.”
The INM facility was already overcrowded. “A Mexican federal official with knowledge of the case who spoke on condition of anonymity” told the Los Angeles Times that “68 men were packed into a cell meant for no more than 50 people — with no access to drinking water.”
Mexican authorities had detained most or all of the migrants earlier on the 27th, on the streets of Ciudad Juárez. After a March 12 incident when hundreds of migrants massed at one of the border bridges between the city and El Paso (see WOLA’s March 17 Border Update), security and migration forces began taking a more aggressive stance toward the growing population of migrants stranded in the city by Title 42 and other policies.
After that incident, Ciudad Juárez Mayor Cruz Pérez Cuéllar said, “the truth is that our level of patience is running out. We’re going to have a stronger posture.” Operations intensified against migrants—many of them Venezuelan—who have become a greater presence on the city’s streets, often begging or trying to earn cash selling food or washing windshields.
Even before that, on March 9, more than 30 local migrant shelters and advocacy organizations had written an open letter accusing authorities of “criminalizing” migrants and asylum seekers, using excessive force and carrying out sweeps to detain migrants off of the streets.
After the tragedy, Mayor Pérez Cuéllar denied that migrants had been rounded up. But migrants’ testimonies signaled otherwise.
- “I was at a stoplight with a piece of cardboard asking for what I needed for my children, and people were helping me with food” on the 27th, a woman migrant told the Associated Press, when “suddenly agents came and detained everyone.”
- Another, who told the El Paso Times that her family had legal permission to be in Mexico, said, “They didn’t ask if we were legal, if we had papers. They just said, ‘Are you Venezuelan? Let’s go.’”
- A Venezuelan man told AFP that agents tricked him into accompanying them to the facility with a false promise of a work permit.
Several dozen were brought to the INM detention facility, but women and children were later released. All of the fire’s victims were men.
In a statement, Mexico’s INM pledged to cooperate with official investigations and support the victims and their families. On March 30, a federal prosecutor issued arrest warrants for three INM officials, two private security guards contracted by INM, and the person accused of starting the fire.
International responses came from many quarters. UN Secretary General António Guterres stated that he was “deeply saddened” and called for a “thorough investigation.” Pope Francis called on people to pray for the victims. “The extensive use of immigration detention leads to tragedies like this,” said Felipe Gonzalez Morales, the UN special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants.
“Civil society organizations have repeatedly called for an end to the institutional harassment that the population in mobility contexts is suffering in Ciudad Juárez,” a statement from more than 200 Mexican organizations read, recalling that a September 2022 visit to the detention facility where the tragedy occurred found miserable conditions for those held within. The groups called for the resignation of INM Commissioner Francisco Garduño, who has a career in politics, including in Mexico’s prison system.Read More