A fire at an immigration detention center on the U.S.–Mexico border on Tuesday seems to have started after migrants at the facility lit mattresses on fire in protest as they feared imminent deportation. The fire grew out of control and left at least 38 people* dead and 29 injured.
The tragedy follows a right-wing escalation in immigration policies coming from the White House. Last month, President Biden announced a proposal to ban certain migrants from receiving U.S. asylum access and to empower the government to deport those migrants more quickly.
Tuesday’s deadly fire took place at a facility in Ciudad Juarez, which stands across the border from El Paso, Texas. According to the National Immigration Institute, 68 men from Central and South America were being held in the facility at the time of the fire. Mexico President Andrés Manuel López Obrador also said the fire was started by migrants protesting after they learned they would be deported. “They never imagined that this would cause this terrible misfortune,” he said.
Biden’s asylum proposal would bar migrants from asylum if they attempted to cross the U.S. border without first seeking refuge in other countries on their way. Migrants unable to prove that they are not in violation of the policy could be quickly deported—without even a chance to appear in front of an immigration judge. U.S. law currently grants the right to anyone physically present in the country to seek asylum regardless of one’s status.
Biden’s proposal is very similar to a Trump-era asylum ban that Democrats (including Biden) rightfully denounced before it was struck down in federal court. The Biden administration sees its new proposed asylum ban as a way to maintain deterrence after Title 42, a Trump-era program that has expelled migrants under the guise of public health, ends.
In Ciudad Juarez, meanwhile, the atmosphere has only heightened paranoia and anxiety among migrants and advocates. The Associated Press reported that more than 30 migrant shelters and other advocacy organizations published an open letter earlier this month that complained of a criminalization of migrants and asylum-seekers in the city. The letter accused authorities of abuse and excessive force while rounding up migrants, even questioning people in the street about their immigration status without any cause.
The 29 injured are at the hospital, with many facing serious injuries. The Guatemalan Institute of Migration has said that at least 28 of those dead have been identified as Guatemalan nationals. At least 853 migrants died just while crossing the border in the 2022 fiscal year.
The death toll in this post was updated.