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Migrant Fire Deaths Underline Mexico’s ‘Dirty Work’ For US

Migrants near Ciudad Juarez cross the Rio Grande that separates Mexico from the United States
AFP

The deaths of 39 detained migrants in a fire in Mexico are a reminder of the “dirty work” the country does for the United States to stem migrant flows, experts say.

Many thousands of US-bound migrants are stranded in Mexico, struggling to survive in crime-ridden border towns without jobs or resources.

Shelters are overflowing and many migrants live on the street, at the risk of tensions with local populations such as in Ciudad Juarez, the border city where the fire broke out Monday in an immigration detention center.

All of which illustrates that the tragedy is the result of “the pressure cooker of US policies,” Eunice Rendon, a migration expert, told AFP.

Here are some questions and answers on the issue:

Mexico registered more than 388,000 irregular migrants between January and November 2022, more than a third more than in the same period of 2021, according to the government.

Last November alone, US authorities apprehended 206,239 migrants at the border, more than at any time in the past two decades, according to the Pew Research Center, a US think tank.

Around one-third of the deportations were fast-tracked under a controversial rule known as Title 42 implemented by then president Donald Trump in March 2020, ostensibly due to the pandemic.

Title 42, which could be lifted in May, has allowed the United States to deport more than two million migrants in three years, mostly overland to Mexico.

President Joe Biden’s administration now encourages migrants in Mexico to submit their asylum requests through a mobile application called CBP One.

Last year, Mexican authorities “continued to collaborate with the USA in implementing US policies that undermine the right to asylum and the principle” of non-forced return of migrants to countries where they may be in danger, Amnesty International said in an annual report this week.

Mexican immigration detained at least 281,149 people in “overcrowded” centers and deported at least 98,299 people, mostly from Central America, including thousands of unaccompanied children, the rights group said.

“People expelled to Mexico from the USA were subjected to multiple forms of violence, including kidnappings, sexual violence and robbery,” it added.

New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch said the tragedy in Ciudad Juarez demonstrated “the deadly consequences of the US outsourcing immigration deterrence to Mexico.”

Since 2019, the Mexican government has deployed more than 20,000 military personnel on its borders, under the threat of trade sanctions from Trump’s administration.

Mexico is “doing the dirty work” of the United States, said Rendon.

But she also acknowledged that since taking office in 2018, President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has attempted a “more humanist” policy towards migrants, such as granting asylum.

His government also funds social programs in Central American countries and has supported US plans to admit thousands of Venezuelans.

Experts say the tragedy in Ciudad Juarez could be a turning point for Mexico to renegotiate the terms of immigration cooperation and demand more support from Washington.

Lopez Obrador has managed to extract gains from Mexico’s role of border guard at times, such as during the pandemic, when he received Covid vaccines from the United States.

But “the most important thing in this case shouldn’t be the government, but the migrants themselves, who are the ones who end up paying the entire cost of this bad Mexican negotiation,” said political analyst Carlos Bravo Regidor.

Rendon said that current cooperation mechanisms such as a security agreement focused on combating drug and arms trafficking should be translated into resources for local governments, nongovernmental organizations that support migrants and the federal government itself.

Migrants wait to be processed by the US Border Patrol, seen from the Mexican side of the US-Mexico border in Ciudad Juarez
Migrants wait to be processed by the US Border Patrol, seen from the Mexican side of the US-Mexico border in Ciudad Juarez
AFP
A police officer gives water to migrants outside the detention center where 39 migrants died in a fire
A police officer gives water to migrants outside the detention center where 39 migrants died in a fire
AFP
Migrants sleep outside the detention center in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, where 39 migrants died during a fire
Migrants sleep outside the detention center in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, where 39 migrants died during a fire
AFP