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39 migrants are dead in a fire at an immigration facility in Mexico


At least 39 people are dead after a fire at an immigration detention center just across the U.S. border in Mexico. Video from the scene shows what appear to be bodies covered by silver blankets lined up outside the facility in Ciudad Juarez. A statement from Mexico's National Immigration Institute says another 29 people were injured. James Fredrick is a journalist and a documentarian who covers migration. He joins us now from Mexico City. James, Mexico's immigration institute also said that - in a statement that they reject, strongly reject, the acts that led to this tragedy. They didn't exactly explain what those acts were. Do we know so far what has happened?

JAMES FREDRICK: Yeah, that statement from the National Immigration Institute was pretty vague and ominous. And then later in his morning press conference, President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador clarified exactly what they meant by that. He said this fire started when migrants at this facility protested when they found out they were going to be deported. According to him, they lit sleeping pads on fire at the entrance to the sleeping area of this facility. And that caused the fire that caused this terrible tragedy. I mean, the other - some other things we know so far is that there were 68 people in this facility. And all of them were either injured or killed in this fire. And so the big question that hangs over this right now is, once the fire started, did anyone open a door to let people out? There were no staff that were injured or killed in this fire that we know of so far. But all of the migrants were affected by it. So that's the real question, is what happened once the fire started?

MARTÍNEZ: Did Mexico's president give any details or identification information about the victims, like where they're from?

FREDRICK: Yeah. So we know a little bit so far. He said most of them are from Central America and that some were from Venezuela. I mean, this mostly checks out with what the demographic of migrants and asylum-seekers here in Mexico is like. And the other thing we know is that they were all adult men, as the migration institute mostly splits men, women and children up once they're detained.

MARTÍNEZ: I described the facility as a detention center earlier, James. What is it about this facility? It's just feet - right? - just a few feet from the border?

FREDRICK: Yeah, exactly. I mean, this is just a few feet south of the main bridge that connects El Paso and Ciudad Juarez. So this is a temporary processing center that was set up in 2019. This has happened a lot in recent years in Mexico, as it has increased its immigration enforcement in line with the U.S. So there are lots of temporary facilities like this one. I didn't know this one specifically. But these temporary facilities in general don't have great services. They're not set up to hold people for a long amount of time. And it's - you know, generally, migration facilities in Mexico do not have a very good reputation. They're usually pretty dirty, poor facilities. And we don't have any sense of what kind of emergency protocols they may have had or not had.

MARTÍNEZ: OK. So when it comes to getting in line with U.S. immigration policy, we've got to bring up Title 42. That's the Trump-era immigration restriction brought in during the pandemic. It's going to expire in May. It's allowed the U.S. to turn asylum-seekers back to Mexico. James, wondering how big of a part that might have played in what's unfolding at the border?

FREDRICK: Well, I mean, to understand what a city like Ciudad Juarez is like for migrants right now, I mean, it all starts with Title 42 and U.S. policies right now. So what Title 42 allows the U.S. to do is it allows them to simply expel people back into Mexico. So that's a change from the way things were before. And so what this means is that, first of all, it's harder for asylum-seekers in Juarez to cross into the U.S. and ask for asylum because they'll just be turned around back into Mexico.

And the other thing is that in these quick expulsions, it creates just this loop where people are crossing multiple times. And so cities like Ciudad Juarez are temporary homes to thousands of migrants at any one time. It's put a huge strain on shelters and the humanitarian sphere in the city. It means that lots of migrants are living in the street right now. It's very visible. So migrants are very desperate. And so when the president describes migrants protesting, angry that they're going to be deported, I'm not surprised to hear it because that's the state of migration in Mexico right now. It's a really, really desperate situation.

MARTÍNEZ: That's James Fredrick, a journalist and documentarian who covers migration. James, thank you.

FREDRICK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.