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Ciudad Juárez fire highlights tough measures on a crowded border

Migrants grieve in front at a Mexican immigration detention center in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico on Tuesday.
Christian Chavez
Migrants grieve in front at a Mexican immigration detention center in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico on Tuesday.

After a fire on Monday killed dozens of people at a center holding migrants in Ciudad Juárez, Mexican authorities said migrants set mattresses on fire. Some migrants have said that isn't true. But the death toll has highlighted a worsening situation for asylum seekers and migrants on the border, as record numbers try to cross.

Fernando Garcia of the Border Network for Human Rights spoke to KUNM about what's known about the incident and what it tells us about the border.

FERNANDO GARCIA: There are some things that we don't know yet. I mean, that's why we are demanding public and quick and transparent investigation. I mean, there are so many angles and rumors of what happened. But the fact is that there was a fire inside of the Instituto Nacional de Migración, what is supposed to be just a processing center, not a detention center, where unfortunately, migrants are under lock and when the fire started, many of them couldn't get out of it. And close to 40 of them had died already. I mean, this is a tragedy. This is something that is very shocking and horrific. And this is a situation where we are asking both governments, the United States and Mexican government, to really come together and explain what happened because this is something that not only violates human rights, but actually puts many migrants in danger.

KUNM: I understand in recent weeks and months there has been something of a crackdown on asylum seekers in Juárez. Can you tell me about that?

GARCIA: Oh yes, what we see the last few months is very aggressive actions and activities against migrants in Juárez. And we're talking about refugees and asylum seekers that actually have been expelled by the United States to Juárez, or they are arriving from the Mexican interior, to Juárez. So I think we had seen kind of a different approach, then, in terms of immigration rates happening in Juárez, or the direct aggressions of law enforcement against refugee camps in Juárez. So I think it's important to say that is not happening in a vacuum. I think that kind of aggression, that kind of attitude is kind of parallel to what the United States is also doing, which actually has increased the expulsion and deportations of migrants to border communities such as Juárez

KUNM: Were you surprised when you heard about this fire?

GARCIA: Listen, I was not. Unfortunately, I was not surprised, because we had been documenting cases and testimonials, not only in Juárez, but also across Mexico, about the conditions of immigrants in transit in Mexico. Also, where they are detained, these immigration facilities in Mexico, as I said, again, they shouldn't be detention centers. But it has been reported to us multiple times about the overcrowding, the lack of basic services, how unsafe these centers were, but also how law enforcement institutions in Mexico were acting with impunity in regards to aggressions towards immigrants.

KUNM: The pandemic era law known as Title 42 is due to end in May. It allowed the US just to send people straight back over the border. Some people have predicted a surge in migration when it ends. Given what we've seen in recent weeks, given this fire, what do you think will happen along the border in the coming weeks and months?

GARCIA: Well, I mean, I don't think the situation is going to be resolved, I think it's only going to get worse. The fact that Title 42 is not going to be in place, that doesn't mean that there's not going to be immigration enforcement at the border. I think we're going to go back to a more aggressive strategy which essentially would be deporting migrants instead of expelling them. And also further criminalize them further, in that deportation process. If you pair that along with the new Biden policy of asylum ban, which essentially doesn't allow that asylum seekers to apply for asylum at the border. I think those two things actually are going to make the situation very difficult for migrants, which again, I think they're going to continue having this strategy. I think they mean to deter migrants and families to come to the border, but historically it has been shown that these kinds of approaches don't work, but they will put migrants at risk and the violation of rights are going to increase even more of what we have so far.

This piece has been edited to correct the name of the human rights institution

Alice Fordham joined the news team in 2022 after a career as an international correspondent, reporting for NPR from the Middle East and later Latin America and Europe. She also worked as a podcast producer for The Economist among other outlets, and tries to meld a love of sound and storytelling with solid reporting on the community. She grew up in the U.K. and has a small jar of Marmite in her kitchen for emergencies.
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