Fire at Migrant Detention Center Sparks Investigation by the National Migration Institute

The National Migration Institute plans to investigate the cause of a deadly fire that broke out at a migrant detention center in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico on Monday evening and killed at least 39 detainees, according to NBC News.

Local authorities, migrants at the facility, and outside experts have provided differing accounts of the disaster; agency officials allege that the fire was started by migrants inside the center in protest of their deportation, while others claim that the cramped and inhospitable living conditions of the center left many individuals unable to escape as the fire began, receiving little assistance from security guards who were shown on video cameras fleeing the scene before rescuing occupants who were trapped behind padlocked doors. The El Paso Times reported on Thursday that a Mexican court had issued arrest orders for six people with presumed involvement in the disaster, including three officials from the National Immigration Institute, two private security guards from the facility, and the detainee accused of starting the fire.

“These devastating events lay bare a truly inhumane system of immigration enforcement,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas to Amnesty International. “How is it possible that the Mexican authorities left human beings locked up with no way to escape the fire?” Immigration experts like Stephanie Leutert, director of the Central America and Mexico Policy Initiative at University of Texas at Austin, regard the tragedy as the inevitable result of sustained policy failure. “You’ve got the U.S. and Mexico’s restrictive immigration policies and border enforcement efforts that create the conditions,” she told the Los Angeles Times. 

To be sure, the path to legal asylum for migrants south of the U.S-Mexico border has become far more treacherous in the wake of harsher laws, policies and protocols. Earlier this year, the Biden administration introduced a new policy mandating migrants from Venezuela, Nicaragua, Haiti, and Cuba to schedule appointments to initiate their asylum process via a U.S. mobile smartphone application “CBP One,” with the goal of expediting the pre-screening process to appear at ports of entry. The Los Angeles Times and BBC reported in March that the new software is littered with technical glitches and offers limited appointments, culminating in longer wait times and greater legal precarity for asylum seekers. Compounded by the Department of Homeland Security’s latest investment of nearly one billion dollars into militarized border security and surveillance measures, detention facilities like that in Ciudad Juarez are overrun with detainees stymied by the inaccessible bureaucratic regimen of the immigration process, many of whom have been waiting for months to see their cases reviewed. Amnesty International estimates the number of people detained by authorities in border security operations to be as high as 318,600 in the year 2022 alone. 

Migrant rights lawyers and advocates have decried these practices, especially in light of March’s ruling from the Mexico Supreme Court of Justice (SCJN) which established that migrant detention centers may only hold people for a maximum of 36 hours, at which  point they must be released. The overcrowding and inhumane treatment of people in these facilities not only betrays the highest rule of law, but transgresses a greater humanitarian commitment to ensure the safety and well-being of those already fleeing dangerous conditions. The recovered video footage showing security guards failing to act with basic urgency for the lives of trapped detainees further calls into question the routine negligence and cruelty of U.S. migrant detention practices. Moreover, the conduct of Ciudad Juarez Mayor Cruz Pérez Cuellar and other officials responsible for facilitating city-wide raids of detainees that would later become victims of this tragedy must be investigated and prosecuted accordingly. 

“The mayor had been sending xenophobic messages to the migrant population,” Edgar Naranjo, a Venezuelan asylum seeker crossing the border with his family, told The Guardian. “His rhetoric prompted these raids. He is responsible.”