Washington, DC – The deaths of at least 38 people in a fire at an immigrant detention facility in northern Mexico has renewed criticism of United States policies that make it more difficult for people to seek protection at the US-Mexico border.
The blaze on Monday night in Ciudad Juarez, a border city across from El Paso, Texas, comes amid months of escalating US border restrictions that advocates have said directly contributed to the tragedy.
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“The US has blood on its hands and should bear the moral weight of such behaviour,” said Karen Musalo, director of the Center for Gender & Refugee Studies at the University of California College of the Law, San Francisco.
Musalo said asylum seekers who have been shut out by the US have suffered in “unimaginable ways”, including being preyed upon by drug cartels and lacking access to food and adequate shelter.
Many have been stuck in Mexican border towns due to a range of policies aimed at limiting arrivals at the US border, including a new rule that allows Washington to turn thousands of people from Venezuela, Haiti, Cuba and Nicaragua back to Mexico each month.
“We can add this unnecessary loss of life to the list of grievous harms suffered by asylum seekers due to the US’s restrictions on asylum,” Musalo told Al Jazeera in an email on Tuesday.
Migrants in Mexico
Rights advocates say there has been an increase in arrivals in Mexican border towns, raising tensions between migrants and authorities.
US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has been allowing people to seek asylum at a US port of entry only after they secure an appointment through a mobile app that immigrant rights groups say is “unreliable”.
Rafael Velasquez, country director for the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in Mexico, said this new CBP app system, coupled with confusion and misinformation over changing border policies, has prompted an increase in arrivals in Ciudad Juarez in recent weeks.
Velasquez added that the humanitarian infrastructure in Mexico – including available shelters – is strained and “under-resourced” while more vulnerable people continue to arrive in the country with the goal of reaching the US.
“We’ve also seen an increase in detention operations by the Mexican government taking place in hotels, in streets, and even in civil society shelters where people in need of international protection go for refuge and go for safety,” he told Al Jazeera.
While the details of Monday’s tragedy are still unclear and Mexican authorities say an investigation is under way, Mexico’s President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said the fire was started by migrants protesting a decision to deport them to their home countries.
Citing a statement from the Mexican attorney general’s office, the Reuters news agency reported on Tuesday that the dead and injured were primarily from Guatemala, as well as Honduras, El Salvador, Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador. People are fleeing these countries due to widespread violence, poverty and political instability.
Mexico’s National Immigration Institute expressed regret at the deaths, and said it would monitor the condition of 29 migrants also injured in the fire and provide support to their loved-ones. “The National Institute of Migration strongly rejects the acts that led to this tragedy,” it said in a statement, without elaborating.
Critics have said deporting people seeking safety without properly adjudicating their claims is a violation of international law, which recognises the right to seek asylum.
“Unfortunately, as the United States takes more extreme steps to close the border to asylum seekers, these types of tragedies will likely become more common,” said Victoria Neilson, supervising lawyer at the National Immigration Project, a legal advocacy group.
“The United States has essentially closed the border to Venezuelan asylum seekers, leaving them in desperate and dangerous situations in Mexico,” she told Al Jazeera.
Amy Fischer, advocacy director for the Americas at Amnesty International USA, also hit out at both the US and Mexico for their treatment of asylum seekers.
“It is unconscionable that in Mexico these people who are trying to seek safety are put in detention centres in cruel conditions, are denied access to asylum in the United States,” she said in an interview. “It is just a mountain of countries that are failing to protect people that have the right to be protected.”
Since taking office, US President Joe Biden’s administration has been under political pressure, particularly from Republican legislators, to deter asylum seekers from irregularly crossing the US border amid an increase in arrivals.
Although Biden campaigned against the strict immigration policies of his predecessor, Donald Trump, he has pursued a policy of deterrence at the border. In June 2021, US Vice President Kamala Harris said in a message to potential migrants from Central America: “Do not come.”
In recent months, the White House has announced a series of measures that would facilitate turning back migrants, including a deal with Mexico to return as many as 30,000 people from Venezuela, Haiti, Nicaragua and Cuba per month. At the same time, Washington said it would accept as many as 30,000 people from those countries into the US each month.
The agreement with Mexico expanded what is known as Title 42, a widely criticised pandemic-era restriction put in place in March 2020 that allows US border authorities to rapidly expel most asylum seekers who arrive at the border.
In February, Washington also proposed a new rule, dubbed “asylum ban” by critics, that would allow US authorities to turn back migrants who cross the American border irregularly if they had not sought protection in countries they crossed earlier in their journeys.
The proposal, which would practically apply to all migrants who travel through Mexico to reach the US border, is expected to go into effect in May as Title 42 ends.
Laurie Ball Cooper, US legal services director at the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP) advocacy group, said the fire in Ciudad Juarez “is yet another heartbreaking tragedy” resulting from border policies that do not recognise the human rights of people seeking refuge.
“That it occurred just feet from the US border underscores the need for the Biden administration to restore the US asylum system rather than continue pushing migrants back into unsafe conditions in Mexico,” Cooper told Al Jazeera in an email.
The Department of Homeland Security, which oversees the US asylum and border systems, did not immediately respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.
US officials have said the Biden administration’s measures are in response to a spike of irregular arrivals at the border, noting that Washington has expanded legal pathways to immigration. They also say they are seeking to protect asylum seekers from dangerous crossings and human trafficking.
Migration remains a hot-button political issue in the US. With a record level of new arrivals at the southern border over the past two years, Republicans often accuse Biden of pursuing an “open borders agenda” and allowing criminals and deadly illicit drugs into the country.
However, US border policies did not change drastically under the Democratic president, who has been criticised by progressives for being too restrictive.
Deepest condolences to the families of those lost in the migrant center fire in Mexico. Their deaths are a painful reminder of the risks of irregular migration & the need to expand legal pathways. We continue to work w/ 🇲🇽& regional partners to address root causes of migration. https://t.co/ieqo20rQv2
— Population, Refugees, and Migration Bureau (@StatePRM) March 28, 2023
“Banning people from requesting asylum is a deadly decision. It will return vulnerable people to danger. The Biden [administration] must pursue policies that ensure pathways to asylum for all migrants arriving at the southern border,” Congressman Chuy Garcia wrote on Twitter last week.
In light of the deaths in Ciudad Juarez, Fischer, of Amnesty International USA, stressed that border restrictions do not stop people from seeking protection.
“What is happening is that people are forced to take riskier and riskier choices in order to find their way to safety,” she told Al Jazeera.
“As long as the US continues to invest in these cruel policies and policies of exclusion, I think we should expect more tragedies like the one we saw overnight.”