US Policy Caused the Deaths of 39 Migrants in Juárez

US Policy Caused the Deaths of 39 Migrants in Juárez

US Policy Caused the Deaths of 39 Migrants in Juárez

The Biden administration’s offshoring of US asylum obligations is killing people, not deterring them.

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On March 27, 39 people died in a fire in an immigration detention and processing center in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. These migrants may have died just outside the borders of our country while under the custody of the Mexican government, but their deaths were caused by the policies, practices, and biases of the US government.

Since 2019 or so, if you are an asylum seeker, you may know that the United States’ southern border is now actually located somewhere in Mexico. This is nothing new—there’s a reason Ellis and Angel Islands, the first landing points of many 19th-century European and Asian immigrants, respectively, are both islands, separated from the US mainland by a few thousand yards of brackish water, a reason that Guantánamo Bay began its legacy of indefinite detention with a group of Haitian HIV+ migrants in 1991. The United States has used the geography of its ocean borders as a barrier, a final hurdle before entrance for centuries.

In more recent years, however, the Trump administration’s “Return to Mexico” policy, which made people wait months if not years in dangerous border cities for their court dates and Title 42, which used the Covid-19 pandemic as an excuse to expel thousands back across the border, have transformed our land borders into an experiment in offshoring migration. Mexican border cities from Tijuana to Matamoros have become a waiting room for thousands of people trying to cross the border.

Since the beginning of this year, this pattern has been exacerbated by the Biden administration’s promise to enact another asylum ban and its reliance on the malfunctioning CBPOne app to slow border crossings to an “acceptably” low rate. Like Trump, Biden is leaving people stranded and unsure of when, or whether, they’ll be able to cross the border and apply for asylum.

United States asylum law states that anyone who is “physically present in the United States or arrives in the United States,” is entitled to apply for asylum here—setting foot on US soil holding the same kind of sheltering promise as crossing the threshold of a church in the Middle Ages. Closing off the possibility of that first step into safety and across the border by setting up one bureaucratic barrier on top of another does not prevent people from choosing to make these dangerous journeys but simply creates a pressurized system with no escape valve, and shunts the consequences to less-resourced countries like Mexico. The system and policies we have now are clearly unsustainable—not just in the long run, but now, already. The 39 men who will never be able to find safety in the United States or see their families and loved ones again are proof.

These policies leave people with nothing to do but wait. The 68 men in the Mexican Institute of Migration’s holding cell had been picked up from around the streets of Ciudad Juárez, many of them performing the kind of informal jobs that allow stranded migrants to survive in often-dangerous Mexican border cities. Their detention came as part of regular street sweeps conducted by migration officials and law enforcement—in fact, in early March, a group of migrant advocacy groups published an open letter denouncing the violence migrants were subjected to by these authorities.

The fire itself reportedly broke out as a protest—Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Mexico’s president, blamed the migrants themselves, in response to being told they would be deported—but an investigation into the origins of the fire is underway. Regardless of how the fire began, little if no care was taken with the lives of the migrants in the care of the Mexican government. Instead, we see Mexican government officials essentially acting as yet another enforcement branch for US immigration policy. The National Institute of Migration guards at the facility, in one video shown walking away from detainees locked inside an already-burning cell, may have been among those trained by US enforcement agents as a part of a cross-border enforcement collaboration, the men’s deportation itself an enactment of US immigration policy by a foreign government trying to placate or please an economically critical neighbor. A top immigration official in Mexico, the Chihuahua state delegate for the National Institute of Migration, allegedly heard about the fire and ordered that the migrants remain locked up.

To understand the despair and frustration of the men in that holding cell, it’s important to understand what these migrants may have gone through to even make it as far as Ciudad Juárez. Since 1994, the United States has enacted an immigration enforcement strategy known as “prevention through deterrence.” The basic idea: make it so hard to cross the border that people will no longer attempt it. Crossing routes near safe, well-traveled territory were fenced or walled off or surveilled, the only paths available through the harshest terrain. The policy did not work: People still came, just more of them died. This was considered an acceptable, if not outright desirable outcome by policy-makers.

This is still, more or less, our immigration policy of today. In addition to the Sonoran Desert, we’ve added hostile landscapes as far south as the Darien Gap as part of our deterrence methods. Crossing the southern border of Mexico means passing through a zone nearly as dangerous and militarized as the US-Mexico border, all funded by Washington. Being deported from Juárez without even being given the chance to apply for asylum in the United States for these men meant either a return to danger in their home countries, or a need to once again undergo the very same perilous journey they believed themselves to be at the end of.

The 39 deaths in Ciudad Juárez on Tuesday are not the lone effect of this system. These victims are an addition to the list that includes the eight people who drowned in a boat that capsized off the coast of San Diego, Calif., two weeks ago; the 53 people who died of heat exposure and asphyxiation in a trailer truck outside San Antonio, Tex., last year; the 853 people who have lost their lives along the US-Mexico border; and the over 900 who lost their lives crossing Mexico in 2022 alone.

Our policies of offshoring and externalizing our asylum obligations are attempts to deter migrants from attempting the journey. Both policies often have the same outcome—death, whether or not we choose to recognize it as caused by the US government. In the next few weeks, amid the grief of family members and the remembrances of lives cut short, we will see blame for these 39 deaths shifted back and forth across the border by politicians and pundits; in all likelihood, it belongs in both countries. Meanwhile, these deaths will continue so long as we treat migration as a crisis rather than an opportunity to live up to our national ideals.

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