At least 39 migrants were burned alive, and many more were gravely injured, on Monday night while a fire raged through an immigration detention center in Ciudad Juárez, across the border from El Paso, Texas. Much is yet to be discovered about what exactly happened. At the time of writing, we do not know how the fire started, the facility’s conditions, nor how long the people killed had been there. (By law, they should have only been there, at most, a day and a half, but that is unlikely.) Taking advantage of this moment of confusion, Mexican authorities have been quick to lay the blame elsewhere.
First, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador asserted that the migrants set fire to mattresses at the door of the facility to protest their imminent deportation. Migrants rights groups have forcefully denied these allegations, pointing to the fact that immigration detainees in Mexico are stripped of all their belongings, including anything that could start a fire. Meanwhile, the National Migration Institute, the government agency overseeing the immigration detention center, only announced that it was monitoring the case and called for an investigation. Later, the minister of the interior, who is formally in charge of migration policy, said in a radio interview that the head of another agency is responsible for what happened.
And yet, despite all the open questions and assertions, the reason the fire became deadly should not be up for debate. Mexican media obtained a video showing that Mexican government officials ran out of the detention center as the fire blazed, without releasing the detainees from their cells. That is, while the cause of the fire is an open question, the cause of death is not: It was the state.
Last year, after 53 migrants died, asphyxiated in a truck in San Antonio, I argued on this website that increased forced displacement in a context of restrictive migration regimes will cost innumerable lives.* The deaths in Ciudad Juárez this week are perhaps the starkest example of this dynamic because they occurred inside a state facility built, in theory, to regulate migrations and protect migrants. Nonetheless, this is not the only mass casualty in recent weeks. Just in February, 70 migrants hiding in cars and trucks died in various road accidents in Central America and Mexico while making their way to the U.S. These deaths are in addition to the more than 800 migrants who, according to the Department of Homeland Security, died crossing the U.S.-Mexico border in fiscal year 2022, a number that even the government admits is an undercount.
As much as the tragedy in Ciudad Juárez is a stark reminder of the relationship between mass death and migration control, it is also a harbinger of what is to come with ever more restrictive policies in the U.S. and the displacement of immigration enforcement to countries south of the border.
Over the past decade, the Mexican government has increased the number of resources spent on migration control. Since López Obrador has taken office, his administration, which prides itself on its left-wing bona fides, has increased the number of armed border officials by almost 50 percent and the number of immigration detainees by 100 percent. Meanwhile, the U.S. has made migration harder not only by further militarizing the southern border but by curtailing the legal paths to migrate. Most recently, the Biden administration proposed a rule that would end asylum at the border as we know it.
This restrictive regime creates a situation in which few migrants make it to and through Mexico, and when they do, they face the reality that they cannot even attempt to enter the United States. While many will try to enter between ports of entry, many will stay at the southern border, waiting for a chance to enter “lawfully.” The more they wait, the more rage and resentment will fester. Migrants will be rightfully angered about how they are treated, Mexican residents will begrudge irregular migrant encampments and workers, and U.S. officials will claim that the growing migrant settlements are proof that more needs to be done to secure the border. In this way, the border will become not only more of a refugee camp but also a social tinderbox waiting to go off.
As long as government authorities on both sides of the border fail to recognize how our countries’ migration policies lead to death, the fire in Ciudad Juárez on Monday will not only be a tragedy but also a premonition of what is to come.
Correction, March 29, 2023: This article originally misstated that 51 migrants died outside El Paso, Texas, in June 2022. In fact, 53 migrants died in San Antonio.