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How Policies in the U.S. and Mexico Led to the Detention Center Fire that Killed 39 People

Video footage circulating online of guards appearing to leave migrants behind after a fire broke out at a detention center in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico late Monday shocked the world, with the tragedy killing at least 39 people and leaving another 28 seriously injured.

At least one migrant allegedly lit a foam mattress on fire to protest after they were informed they would be deported, according to Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. Scores of people have temporarily settled in the border town as they await the May ending of Title 42, a U.S. policy which prevented migrants from being granted asylum due to concerns that they would increase the COVID-19 public health risk.

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Ciudad Juarez has become a popular destination for thousands of asylum seekers who hope to enter the United States through El Paso, Texas. Tensions have been rising among officials and residents and there have been reports of agents inhumanely rounding-up people into detention centers. An open letter signed by 210 migrant advocacy organizations on Tuesday reported a lack of water, ventilation and medical access. “Mexico’s migration policy kills,” they wrote.

Migration policy experts in the U.S. agree that the incident was completely “preventable” and was the culmination of inadequate migration policies.

“This is an example of the type of tragedies we invite… with the type of deterrent and barrier policy that our government keeps gravitating towards,” says Javier Hidalgo, Director of Pre-Removal Services at immigration nonprofit RAICES.

How did U.S. migration policies play a role in the fire?

Migrants have been barred from entering the U.S. under Title 42. The policy, which began under former President Donald Trump during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, used the public health emergency as reasoning to expel more than 2.5 million migrants who were seeking asylum.

The policy is set to end on May 11. While the Biden administration has proposed another set of asylum restrictions that could limit the number of migrants who can enter the country, Ariel Ruiz Soto, a policy analyst at the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute, says that proposal is unlikely to roll out due to criticism from international organizations that it is unlawful.

Thousands of migrants have “perceived that there may be an opening for them,” Ruiz Soto says, and are waiting for that policy shift to seek refuge in the U.S.

Cities like Ciudad Juarez, have become a “holding pen for a lot of migrants,” Rachel Schmidtke, senior advocate for Latin America at nonprofit Refugees International, says. Tijuana’s shelters, for instance, have a capacity for 5,600 people, per the New York Times, but there are currently some 15,000 migrants overcrowding the city.

Many of these asylum seekers are in limbo as new entry point regulations require them to make an appointment with the CBPOne—a mobile app that provides services to non citizens who are entering through the southern border—which has been riddled with problems, as migrants struggle to be able to make appointments on the app, since its rollout.

And Mexico, which has seen the number of migrants substantially increase in the last few years, has not done much to address the needs of their current system. “I think also without resources being delegated to where they need to go, the system is going to continue to be overwhelmed and these things will continue to happen,” Schmidtke adds.

Mexico’s Inaction

When the fire happened, there were 68 men in the migration center. Most of the men were Guatemalan, with the remaining from Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Honduras and Venezuela.

Police have already issued four arrest warrants and identified eight suspects—including two federal agents, one state immigration agent, and one migrant who may have started the fire, Mexican authorities said during a press conference on Wednesday. But as the individual actions of the officers fall under question, so too do the broader policies of Mexico’s migration system.

The Mexico’s National Migration Institute (INM)一which regulates the entry and exit of migrants in the country— Schmidtke says, has a long history of human rights abuses at migration stations.

“I know the Mexican government uses words like shelters, and says that they’re rescuing migrants, but really what they’re doing is detaining them,” Schmidtke adds. “If the Mexican government had really held the INM accountable and really tried to improve conditions in these migration stations or amend its detention policies, then this wouldn’t have happened.”

The INM has also recently been under fire by its adjacent citizen council that oversees their operations and makes proposals for the institute’s improvement. In a letter released on Tuesday, the council said they documented the “deficiencies” of migration centers in 2017. Although the INM was aware of failures in their policies, no action had been taken prior to the incident, according to the letter.

Mexico now has to plan how to receive migrants who will be sent back from the U.S., though it will notably be a much more diverse population of people than the country has experienced prior to the Title 42 restrictions.

“What is different today is that one, they have a very diverse population of migrants that are no longer primarily Mexican. And two, that they are different compositions,” Ruiz Soto says. (Mexico previously agreed to take in Mexican nationals and citizens from the following seven countries: Cuba, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, who were turned away from the U.S. border under Title 42 restrictions.)

“Some of them are families. Some of them are unaccompanied children. Some of them are single adults. This composition needs to be a central component of how Mexico reconsiders and revises its response or when people return,” Ruiz Soto says.

That response involves accommodating detention centers for the number of migrants expected, and figuring out how to provide legal services for migrants who may want to seek asylum in Mexico and more, Ruiz Soto adds.

Are these types of incidents common?

While this does not mark the first time protests have occurred in Mexican migration centers (there was one last October in Tijuana, Mexico and another in the southern Mexican city of Tapachula) experts say the protests are a “reflection of boiling pressures and frustrations among migrants [at] the U.S.-Mexico border.”

Ruiz Soto notes that the city has the resources to deal with this sort of emergency and should have done better. “If this type of event occurred in an urban hub with relatively significant resources to prevent these types of catastrophes…it may show the possibility of something else like this happening in other [cities] that are less equipped to provide this type of assistance,” Ruiz Soto says.

Videos of migrants complaining about inhumane conditions and treatment have also been circulating online. Hidalgo tells TIME that while these conditions grew prevalent during the pandemic, they are not “dissimilar” from what we’ve been hearing over the years about these facilities.

Migrants, many of whom are escaping persecution, are susceptible to maltreatment from migration officials and smugglers as they travel north.

“A lot of those people are fleeing pretty dire conditions,” Schmidtke says. “There is a lot of desperation… because they’re seeking safety and a better opportunity for themselves and for their families.”

“They’re not committing any crime,” Schmidtke adds.”They are simply trying to survive and sell goods on the streets so they can have a livelihood, so they shouldn’t really be treated like criminals.”

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