Nearly 40 Migrants Died in a Juarez Detention Center Fire. U.S. Border Policy Is Partially To Blame.

America's approach to the border helps contribute to the overcrowding and violence migrants face in Mexico.


On Monday night, a fire broke out at a migrant detention center in Ciudad Juarez, a Mexican city just across the border from El Paso, Texas. By the time the smoke cleared, nearly 40 migrants were dead.

Mexican and American government officials have blamed many factors for the tragedy. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said the migrants had started the fire "as a form of protest" after learning they would be deported. (Some migrants who had previously been in the shelter have doubted this account, saying the center strips all migrants of their possessions). Some have implicated the detention center guards, who were seen in a video "not appear[ing] to make any effort to open the cell doors," per the Associated Press.

The State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration called the deaths "a painful reminder of the risks of irregular migration." But U.S. immigration policy also played a role in the Monday tragedy, contributing to overcrowding and violence south of the border as desperate migrants are deported from the U.S. and barred from entering the country in the first place.

The Biden administration announced new measures to toughen the border in January, including significant restrictions on the asylum process. It also launched an app, CBP One, which is now the only legal way for migrants to request humanitarian protection at the U.S.-Mexico border. "Daily appointments run out within minutes on the app, which has been prone to crashing and is unavailable in most languages," according to the Los Angeles Times. Migrants have waited at the border for months due to the glitchy app and the continued renewal of the Title 42 order, a pandemic-era policy that allows U.S. border officials to immediately expel migrants who enter the country.

Waiting south of the border has long been dangerous. Under "Remain in Mexico," a Trump and Biden administration policy that forces migrants to stay in Mexico as they await their American immigration court dates, asylum seekers have faced rampant violence. Human Rights First has recorded over 1,500 cases of kidnappings, murders, rapes, and other violent attacks against those relegated to Mexico.

Just as south-of-the-border tent cities ballooned under that policy, thousands of migrants are now living in encampments in Mexico. Mexican shelters are stretched far beyond their capacities. A Mexican federal official interviewed by the Los Angeles Times cited this as a "motive for the protest" in Juarez—"68 men were packed into a cell meant for no more than 50 people."

Crowding may well get worse when the Biden administration imposes a new border rule in May, which will largely bar non-Mexican migrants from receiving asylum in the U.S. if they don't apply for protection in countries they passed through on their way there. In effect, it "would presume asylum ineligibility for those who enter illegally," per The Washington Post.

American border policies alone didn't cause the deaths in Juarez, but the tragedy highlights the limitations of the "prevention through deterrence" approach. If the journey is made inconvenient enough and the penalties sufficiently severe, the logic goes, migrants will be discouraged. But they haven't been—tens of thousands of people are still attempting the journey, which only grows deadlier as legal entry becomes more limited.