A ‘True Tragedy’ Behind the Deadly Inferno on Texas’ Doorstep
As smoke rose over the heavily patrolled border between Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, and El Paso, Texas, people in communities on both sides of the border were left to reckon with unspeakable tragedy.
Mexico’s National Immigration Institute, a detainment facility holding 68 migrants from Central and South America, caught fire on Monday night, killing at least 39 people and sending 29 to the hospital in critical condition.
At a Tuesday morning news conference, Mexican President Andrés Manuel Lopéz Obrador said the blaze allegedly began after a group of migrants found out that they were going to be deported and set their mattresses on fire in protest.
Horrific Fire Rips Through Migration Detention Center Near U.S. Border Killing 39: Reports
Ramiro Andrade, a tattoo artist at Estilo Firme Tattoo Co. in the Barrio Segundo neighborhood of El Paso just blocks from the border, told The Daily Beast he saw smoke as he was leaving his shop at around 10 p.m. but did not know what had happened until he found out later on the news.
Andrade said his first reaction was one of “solidarity,” living in the border community of Barrio Segundo, which has a large immigrant population and is often a first destination for migrants entering the United States.
“We understand that they just want to work,” Andrade said. “They just want a better life, just like the rest of us.”
Es criminal. Así dejaron encerrados a los migrantes en la Estación de Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua. pic.twitter.com/MwwMGi1cTl
— Joaquín López-Dóriga (@lopezdoriga) March 28, 2023
But when Andrade found out that the fire had been set intentionally by the migrants themselves, he began to worry about the reactions it would provoke on the American side of the border.
“They’re like, ‘You know, they started this fire,’ so they’re gonna be like, ‘What if they come over here and start another fire?” Andrade said, adding that “everyone judges quick.”
Liliana Ruiz, who works at a nutrition store a few blocks from the tattoo parlor, referenced a similar climate of suspicion in Barrio Segundo.
For Ruiz, the empathy her neighbors felt for migrant families was tempered by a profound uneasiness, especially in the wake of a March 13 incident in which a large group of Venezuelan migrants attempted to force their way over a bridge linking El Paso to Ciudad Juaréz.
“All of a sudden [the migrants] violently wanted to cross and demand so much,” Ruiz told The Daily Beast. “I think that people did not like that, and it is a little bit like they do not want to accept them.”
Across the border, as family members of the detained migrants anxiously awaited news of their relatives, a similar debate played out in a city that has recently seen a massive influx of migrants.
José Loya, the director of news for Juarez-based radio station Megaradio, called the issue of immigration “very polarizing” for the border city, which he said has become a “final destination” for migrants seeking entry into the U.S.
Ciudad Juaréz has been heavily impacted by Title 42, a pandemic-era policy enacted by the Trump administration that has enabled U.S. Customs and Border Patrol to expel over 1.7 million asylum seekers back across the border and force them to wait in Mexico while their cases are processed.
With this influx of Central and South American migrants to a city already dealing with high rates of crime and poverty, Loya told The Daily Beast he has observed a similar binary of “solidarity” and “discomfort.”
However, Loya hopes the fire will draw new attention to the plight faced by migrants.
Loya said he saw rescue vehicles and security forces gathering around the National Immigration Institute, which is directly across the street from Megaradio’s offices, while at work on Tuesday morning.
“It’s a true tragedy,” Loya said. “Now what I think, being honest, could come is a situation of empathy with the migrants, with their families.”
Loya said he hopes the increased attention will lead to more complaints to federal authorities about the conditions in which migrants arrive at detention facilities.
As recently as March 9, a group of 30 migrant shelters and nonprofits published an open letter criticizing Mexican authorities for what they called excessive force and abuse in the government’s treatment of migrants, according to a report by the Associated Press,
Back on the El Paso side, Maria Pacheco, who works at a homeless shelter that serves migrants, shared Loya’s hope that the tragedy could function as a wake-up call.
“Maybe we should listen to the immigrants, and then we won’t get too upset and [end up] doing something that makes them get desperate,” Pacheco said.
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