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CIUDAD JUÁREZ, MEXICO — Katiuska Márquez, her husband Abel Oviedo and their two sons had been released from a migrant detention center in this Mexican border city Monday afternoon — after immigration authorities arrested them and their friend for panhandling at a city intersection.
The couple said they were released because they had children with them and ordered to leave Juárez within 30 days. But they said their friend, who they identified as Orlando Maldonado, was traveling without his family and was held at the detention center overnight.
So when Márquez and Oviedo woke up Tuesday morning to the news that the detention center had caught fire, killing 39 men and injuring 29 others, the couple rushed from their hotel room to the facility just minutes away from El Paso.
“That’s the hope, to get him back alive,” Márquez said, wiping tears away. “But my hopes are low.”
The National Immigration Institute, Mexico’s immigration regulatory office, said the fire started about 10 p.m. Monday in one of its facilities in Ciudad Juárez near a bridge that connects the Mexican city to El Paso.
There were 68 men in the facility at the time, 29 of whom were injured and transported to four local hospitals in “delicate-serious conditions,” the agency said in a statement.
The men are from Central and South America, and Mexican officials are working with consulates to help identify the victims, the institute said.
Reporters in Juárez shared on Twitter what they say is footage from inside the facility, showing men behind bars as smoke and flames fill the room and security staff appear to be running away.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection said in a statement that it “is prepared to receive and process those who were injured in the fire and are being transported via ambulance from Mexican to U.S. facilities for treatment.”
During his daily morning news conference, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, sometimes referred to as AMLO, said the fire started when migrants at the detention center learned they were being deported and set fire to mattresses in protest.
But the Los Angeles Times, citing an anonymous Mexican federal official with knowledge of the case who spoke on the condition of anonymity, reported that the migrants’ protest was because 68 of them were crowded in a cell meant for 50 people and that they had no access to drinking water.
The immigration agency called for an investigation and said it “expresses its willingness to assist in the investigation, to clarify these unfortunate events. This immigration authority will promptly monitor the evolution of the health status of those who are hospitalized and will provide full support to the families of the victims,” the statement said. “The National Immigration Institute strongly rejects the acts that led to this tragedy.”
In recent months, migrants from Central and South America have arrived at the Texas-Mexico border, many of whom are seeking asylum in the United States after fleeing corrupt governments, violence and impoverished conditions in their respective countries.
Since March 2020, U.S. Border Patrol agents have turned away many people attempting to enter the country, including migrants seeking asylum, because of the federal emergency health order known as Title 42. Agents have used Title 42 more than 2.6 million times to turn away migrants at the southern border.
On May 11, the Biden administration plans to end the COVID-19 national and public health order that had allowed the government to invoke Title 42. The order, which was imposed by the Trump administration in January 2020 and renewed every 90 days since then, helped Americans receive COVID-19 tests and vaccines at the government’s expense; ending it means that migrant removals under Title 42 will automatically come to a halt.
In January, the Biden administration also created a new immigration plan that would allow 30,000 migrants per month from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela to enter the country and be able to work legally for up to two years.
In order to qualify, people must apply using a cellphone application called CBP One to make an appointment at a port of entry before they try to enter the U.S. But some migrants have reported that the cellphone app has crashed repeatedly, leaving them stranded in Mexican border towns.
First: A group of migrants hold up an afternoon newspaper that mentions the overnight fire at the Ciudad Juárez migrant center. Last: Migrants place flowers on a makeshift memorial near the entrance of the migrant center. Credit: Ivan Pierre Aguirre for The Texas Tribune
Márquez, Oviedo and Maldonado had left Venezuela about six months ago, making the trek through the treacherous Darién Gap at the Colombia-Panama border, like hundreds of thousands of South Americans have done in recent years after their countries’ economies collapsed and to flee persecution for speaking out against their governments.
Márquez, 23, and Oviedo, 28, said Maldonado has a son and a wife who currently live in Colombia.
The couple said they arrived in Juárez about 10 days ago and went to Mexican immigration authorities to ask how they could apply for asylum in the U.S. They also asked if they could apply for work permits to work in Mexico until they could gather enough money to migrate to the U.S.
“That’s the mission, the U.S., but we’re willing to settle in Mexico if we could work, but they won’t let us,” Oviedo said, standing across the street from the migrant detention center with his two sons — one was running around while the oldest leaned his head onto his mother’s shoulder as she held him.
Márquez said she is aware the Mexican government doesn’t want them in the streets asking residents for money. But she says authorities in the U.S. and Mexico don’t give her a choice.
The couple said they’ve tried to apply for asylum online as part of the Biden administration’s new immigration program, but the cellphone app keeps crashing each time they try.
As the morning passed, dozens of other migrants showed up, waiting for hours and hoping Mexican immigration authorities or the country’s national guard would update them about their friends and loved ones.
The group of dozens of migrants, most from Venezuela, approached the steel fence shouting “justice” repeatedly.
“They didn’t have to die just because they were immigrants,” a woman shouted while her son sat on her shoulders.
The U.S. Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, the humanitarian arm of the State Department, tweeted a statement expressing its “deepest condolences” to the families who lost loved ones in the fire.
“Their deaths are a painful reminder of the risks of irregular migration & the need to expand legal pathways,” it tweeted earlier on Tuesday, adding that it is working with Mexican and regional partners “to address root causes of migration.”
Immigrant rights advocacy groups on both sides of the border blasted the Biden and López Obrador administrations’ policies toward asylum-seeking migrants.
“The Biden administration’s increasingly aggressive posture on migration enforcement and deterrence first strategies at the border have pressured Mexican authorities to stem migration in an already overcrowded and under-resourced system resulting in fatal tragedies such as the one we witnessed last night,” the Hope Border Institute, a Catholic advocacy group that works with immigrants in El Paso and Juárez, said in a statement.
The group added: “Those who blame the victims of the fire obscure the reality that these deaths are an indictment of the policies and structures implemented at large by both governments.”