This story originally appeared in Truthout on March 28, 2023. It is shared here under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 (CC BY-SA) license
More than three dozen asylum seekers were killed in a fire at a migrant jail in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, early Tuesday morning.
At least 39 people imprisoned at the jail were killed by the fire, which took place overnight, the Mexican Instituto Nacional de Migración (INM) said in a statement. Another 29 people were injured, some of whom are in critical condition. Victims were transferred to at least four hospitals in the area.
“The fire at the shelter is a devastating tragedy and a reminder of how border and immigration policies are shaping and intensifying a crisis of fear that fuels a greater disparity and loss of human lives,” Isa Noyola, deputy director of Mijente, told Truthout.
“Unfortunately, we will continue to see more and more tragedies unfold along both sides of the border as long as the U.S. and Mexican governments continue to play into fear-based politics that promote the idea that migrants are disposable,” Noyola added. “Now more than ever, the U.S. government must be held accountable for the devastation along the border and human rights violations in detention centers.”
Al Jazeera described the fire as “one of the deadliest incidents at an immigration lockup in the country.” Video of the incident shows ambulances and fire response crews arriving at the scene, with vans from the morgue arriving shortly after.
Victims of the fire had traveled from Central and South America to seek asylum in the United States, many of them from Guatemala and Venezuela.
Mexico’s attorney general’s office has launched an inquiry into the fire. Initial reports from Mexican officials blamed migrants, claiming they sparked the fire in protest of their looming deportation.
“In the door of the shelter they put some mattresses and set them on fire. They never imagined that would cause this tragedy,” Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who is often referred to as AMLO, said in a statement.
AMLO was widely condemned for failing to address the conditions of the jail — which likely played a role in the number of lives lost — or the militarized immigration systems of Mexico and the U.S.
“What [officials] must explain is what conditions the detention center was in, such that they had not been able to save 39 people from being trapped while it was on fire,” labor lawyer Francisco I. Colunga said on Twitter.
Charles Duverger, a former employee at Mexico’s Human Rights Commission who spent 10 years monitoring migrant jails, has publicly questioned the government narrative that migrants started the fire.
Many immigrant advocates have noted that the tragedy is largely the result of decades of violent U.S. border policing.
“The true culprit of this horrific fire is the Biden administration, which has obliterated the right to asylum, barred US entry to asylum seekers & kept tens of thousands camped in unsafe conditions like this to deter migration,” said Eric London, a writer for the World Socialist Web Site. “AMLO too. Open the borders!”
Silky Shah, executive director of Detention Watch Network, told Truthout that immigrant jails are “inherently harmful, abusive, and unjust,” no matter where they are located — and that “in the most tragic cases, they are deadly.”
This tragedy is the direct result of the United States’s immigration system, which has prioritized deterrence, detention, and militarization over humanity at every step. The U.S. and Mexican governments are morally complicit in the abuse and death that people migrating for safety face once they arrive at the Southern border.
In February, the Biden administration proposed a rule that would require asylum seekers at the U.S. border — many of whom are fleeing gang violence, systemic poverty or government persecution — to first apply for asylum in countries they passed through on their way to the U.S.
Under this policy, which is expected to be implemented in May, migrants from Central or South America who do not seek asylum in Mexico before reaching the U.S. border will be subject to immediate deportation.
Immigrant advocates have said that the proposal resembles asylum bans pursued by former President Donald Trump. The United Nations has urged President Biden to rescind the plan, noting that the policy will result in “the forced return of people to situations where their lives and safety would be at risk — which is prohibited under international law.”
“Borders kill,” said Harsha Walia, a Canadian author and co-founder of the migrant justice movement No One Is Illegal. “All love and rage to the families of the migrants killed & injured in the migrant containment center in Ciudad Juarez (part of the US’s border outsourcing policies, with full complicity of Mexican govt).”