At least 39 people dead in Mexican immigration centre after mattresses set ablaze in protest, president says
At least 39 people have died and at least 29 others are injured after a lethal blaze inside a government-run immigration facility in Mexico near the country’s border with the United States.
The fire broke out inside the National Migration Institute in Ciudad Juarez, across from the US-Mexico border near El Paso, Texas, shortly before 10pm on 27 March, according to Mexico’s National Immigration Institute.
Mexico’s president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said a group of migrants had set fire to highly flammable mattresses in protest after learning they would be deported. “They did not imagine that this was going to cause this terrible tragedy,” he said in his remarks the following morning.
Sixty-eight men were being held inside the building when it was set ablaze, according to authorities. Victims were largely from Central America, though some men were from Venezuela, according to the president.
At least 28 people who died in the fire at the Ciudad Juarez facility were from Guatemala, according to the Guatemalan Migration Institute. Authorities reportedly believe many people died from smoke inhalation.
The office of Mexico’s attorney general has launched an investigation, and the National Human Rights Commission has also been called in to help the migrants impacted by the tragedy.
Ciudad Juarez is a major crossing point for migrants entering the US from Mexico. Local news outlets have reported growing tensions among authorities and migrants held in detention centres as protests break out in other facilities amid stringent border enforcement and dire conditions in migrants’ home countries.
In recent years, as Mexico has stepped up efforts to stem the flow migration to the US border under pressure from the American government, its National Immigration Institute has struggled with overcrowding.
Earlier this month, Ciudad Juarez Mayor Cruz Perez Cuellar announced that the city’s “patience is running out” with its care for migrants.
“We have the obligation of taking care of the city,” he said during a briefing earlier this month.
Human rights groups have denounced what they have called the government’s “criminalization of migrants,” issuing a statement accusing authorities of sending “a message of intimidation”.
Following the fire, local news outlets reported authorities were rounding up migrants.
US authorities have turned away thousands of people fleeing corruption, violence and poverty in recent years after their arrival at the border under a public health order invoked by former president Donald Trump’s administration and a so-called “Remain in Mexico” programme that has forced asylum seekers to remain on the other side of the border as their cases are pending in the US.
It is likely that the migrants at the facility seeking asylum in the US were impacted by the Covid-19 public health order, allowing border officials to expel migrants seeking asylum during the pandemic. The US Supreme Court determined that the policy remains in effect until May, when the administration intends to dissolve the public health emergency.
The Title 42 order has been invoked tens of thousands of times since 2020, and immigration advocates have urged the White House to lift the order, which has been tied up in courts, while thousands of vulnerable people fleeing violence, kidnapping, threats and political instability and poverty are stuck in limbo.
The Biden administration is working with Mexico to implement other border restrictions in an effort to discourage people from making illegal crossings into Mexico and then into the US, though the White House also has rolled out a plan for thousands of migrants from Venezuela, Cuba, Haiti and Nicaragua, as long as they apply online in a programme that has been marred by controversy.
Migrants killed or injured in the fire likely were impacted by the Title 42 policy, while others may have been seized by Mexican agents in an operation to remove migrants from road crossings where they clean windows, sell sweets or ask for money, according to La Verdad.
Harrowing images captured the aftermath of the blaze showed rows of of bodies under shimmery silver sheets outside the facility while ambulances, firefighters and vans from the morgue were also on the scene.
Monday’s fire marks the deadliest incident inside a Mexican immigration facility in recent memory, though protests in the nation’s detention centres are not uncommon.
Police and National Guard troops responded to protests inside an immigration centre in Tijuana in October among mostly Venezuelan migrants. The following month, dozens of people protested inside Mexico’s largest detention centre in the southern city of Tapachula near the border with Guatemala. No one died in either incident.
In January, the White House introduced an immigration plan to allow 30,000 migrants per month from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela to enter the US with legal permission to work in the country for two years.
A group of more than 100 lawmakers from the US House and Senate, meanwhile, have urged the White House to strike down any proposals that would reintroduce family separation policies, as the administration mulls stringent immigration protocol.
“The harm of detaining children is clear,” House members wrote in their letter to the White House on 28 March. “Even short periods of detention can cause psychological trauma and long-term mental health risks for children. We urge you to maintain your commitment to not detaining families and children and not return to a cruel policy of the past.”
In a statement on 28 March, US Ambassador to Mexico Ken Salazar said he joins “the pain of the relatives of migrants who lost their lives and those injured” in the Ciudad Juarez fire.
“It is a reminder to the governments of the region of the importance of fixing a broken migration system and the risks of irregular migration,” he added.
White House national security council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said that the “the tragic loss of life in Ciudad Juarez is heartbreaking.”
“Our prayers are with those who lost their lives, their loved ones, and those still fighting for their lives. The United States has been in touch with Mexican officials and stands ready to provide any needed support,” she added.