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.

This week:

  • 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

As of mid-day on March 30, the death toll from a fire at a Ciudad Juárez, Mexico migrant detention facility stands at 39 or more people, with about 29 more injured.

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.

A statement from the U.S. Embassy in Mexico offered condolences, adding that the tragedy “confirms that those who wish to migrate must do so through legal pathways, to avoid the risks that come with irregular migration and human smugglers.” A tweet from the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration similarly stated, “Their deaths are a painful reminder of the risks of irregular migration & the need to expand legal pathways.” CBP indicated that some of the injured may be given humanitarian parole to receive treatment inside the United States.

Migrants’ rights advocates observed that the official U.S. statements neglected to note that asylum seekers had been forced to choose their pathways by restrictive U.S. policies like Title 42 and an insufficient number of appointments at ports of entry for users of CBP’s smartphone application, CBP One.

“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,’ reads a statement from WOLA. “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.”

“Dismissing this as a result of ‘irregular migration’—rather than abusive practices of migrant detention—comes perilously close to victim-blaming,” tweeted Jeremy Konyndyk, the president of Refugees International. “Asylum access IS a legal pathway… The detention of these asylum-seekers was not some inherent risk of the migration process. Ciudad Juarez is not the Darien Gap.”

“The Biden administration’s increasingly aggressive posture on migration enforcement and deterrence-first strategies at the border have pressured Mexican authorities to stem migration in an already overcrowded and under-resourced system resulting in fatal tragedies such as the one we witnessed last night,” read a statement from the El Paso-based Hope Border Institute cited at the Texas Tribune.

The number of CBP’s and Border Patrol’s Title 42 expulsions from the El Paso area was 86 percent greater in February 2023 than in February 2022. Expulsions into Ciudad Juárez jumped in October 2022, as the Biden administration began expelling Venezuelan citizens into Mexico (see WOLA’s October 14 Border Update).

In January and February alone, U.S. authorities carried out 43,604 Title 42 expulsions from the El Paso sector. (A small proportion of that total, mostly Colombians and Ecuadorians, were expelled by air to their countries of origin.) During those two months, Mexico’s government reported receiving ICE deportations of another 1,320 Mexican citizens in Ciudad Juárez.

To that must be added an unknown number of people who have newly arrived in Ciudad Juárez but have not yet attempted to cross and ask for asylum, because of the likelihood of expulsion.

Proposed asylum ban rule receives 51,952 comments

March 27 was the deadline for public comments on the Biden administration’s proposed “transit ban” rule, which it hopes to implement after the Title 42 authority’s likely May 11 termination date. This rule would put asylum beyond reach for most non-Mexican migrants encountered on U.S. soil who did not first seek asylum in another country along the way, or who did not make one of a small number of daily appointments to seek asylum at a port of entry using the CBP One app. (See WOLA’s February 23 and March 3 Border Updates.)

The public’s response to the rule was striking. U.S. federal government’s regulations.gov website counts 51,952 comments received, of which 12,624 are posted to its online docket.

Not all of the commenters are non-governmental. Fourteen Democratic U.S. Senators posted a comment opposing the rule, as did 68 Representatives. The UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, posted a critique. The union representing U.S. asylum officers also posted a comment.

WOLA posted its comment on March 22. And here is a list of 167 organizational commenters.

Other news

  • Two migrants, citizens of Honduras, were found dead of asphyxiation in an unventilated cargo train car in Knippa, Texas, not far from the border city of Eagle Pass. “More than a dozen people were found inside train cars on Friday afternoon after someone alerted 911 that migrants were ‘suffocating’ there,” CBS News reported.
  • Panama’s Public Security Ministry reported on March 25 that, as of that date, 78,585 migrants had passed through the treacherous Darién Gap region so far in 2023, with 29,294—about 1,200 per day—so far in March. That puts March 2023 on pace to be the third-heaviest month ever for Darién Gap migration. Panama’s foreign minister predicted that migration could reach 400,000 people by the end of the year, far more than 2022’s record of 248,284.
  • At The Hill, Rafael Bernal and Rebecca Beitsch published a two-part series on cross-border fentanyl trafficking, which has become a sticking point in U.S.-Mexico relations.
  • Sources told NBC News that the Biden administration is “preparing to announce a deal with Mexico” in which the U.S. government will do more to stop the southbound flow of U.S. guns into Mexico, while Mexico cracks down on fentanyl production and smuggling.
  • While Mexico’s president has said some harsh things lately about the United States, particularly with regard to fentanyl and the State Department’s annual human rights report, the Washington Post’s Nick Miroff noted that Andrés Manuel López Obrador continues to serve the Biden administration as “a bulwark of its strategy to curb illegal border crossings.”
  • A California federal judge ruled in favor of New York City-based pastor Kaji Dousa, who sued in 2019 after learning that the Trump-era CBP had placed her and other U.S. citizens on a “secret blacklist” of people suspected, with little or no evidence, of association with “migrant caravans.” CBP shared those individuals’ personal information with Mexican authorities, The Intercept reported.
  • 19 Democratic senators, including leaders of the chamber, sent a letter to President Joe Biden urging him not to re-start detention of migrant families, a policy that the Biden administration ended, but has reportedly been considering reviving (see WOLA’s March 10 Border Update).
  • House Republican “leaders forecast that a new package” of border and migration-hardening bills “could start moving in late April, but internal tension between moderates and border hawks,” which halted their first attempt in February, remains high, The Hill reported.
  • DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas underwent angry questioning from Republican senators, about migration and fentanyl, at a Judiciary Committee hearing. The Secretary also testified before the Senate Appropriations Committee’s Homeland Security Subcommittee.
  • Amid an increase in asylum seekers crossing from the United States into Canada, President Biden and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced changes to their 2002 “safe third country” agreement that “make it nearly impossible to claim asylum at the Canada-U.S. border,” as the CBC put it. About three flights so far have taken migrants caught at the northern border to Texas; Mexican citizens are then returned to their country.
  • The situation at the northern border was the subject of a March 28 hearing of the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Oversight, Investigations, and Accountability.
  • Legislation advancing in Texas’s state legislature would create a force, including deputized civilians, to “arrest, detain, and deter individuals crossing the border illegally including with the use of non-deadly force,” The Intercept reported, adding that the new unit would also “use force to repel, arrest, and detain known transnational cartel operatives in the border region.” Intercept reporter Ryan Devereaux recalled, “In Texas, raising citizen armies against particular populations of people has a dark, not-too-distant history.” A Human Rights Watch statement calls the bill “a dangerous global precedent.”