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39 migrants are dead, 29 injured after a fire at an immigration facility in Mexico

Migrants grieve in front at a Mexican immigration detention center in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico on Tuesday.
Christian Chavez
Migrants grieve in front at a Mexican immigration detention center in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico on Tuesday.

At least 39 migrants are dead and 29 are injured following a fire Monday at an immigration processing facility in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, according to thecountry's National Migration Institute.

Images shared on social media by local journalists and published by The Associated Pressshowed bodies covered by silver sheets, firefighters transporting victims and ambulances waiting outside the facility, which is located just across the border from El Paso, Texas.

The migrants started the fire in protest, lighting their sleeping mats after learning they were being deported, said Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador at his morning press briefing.

Most of the victims came from four countries

The national immigration agency says it's reached out to foreign consulates to identify the victims. It also says it asked Mexico's National Council on Human Rights to investigate the incident.

Andrea Chávez, a federal deputy for Ciudad Juárez, said that Mexico's attorney general has also initiated an investigation into the fire.

The blaze broke out shortly before 10 p.m. local time Monday, according to the immigration agency. Sixty-eight men from Central and South America were staying at the facility, which houses migrants who are waiting on requests for asylum in the U.S. or preparing to cross the border.

In an update issued by Mexico's Attorney General's Office on Tuesday, the office shared the nationalities of all but one of the victims, including 28 Guatemalans, 13 Hondurans, 12 Venezuelans, 12 Salvadorans, 1 Colombian and 1 Ecuadorian.

The 29 injured migrants were listed in "delicate-grave" condition and taken to four local hospitals for treatment, the immigration agency said.

Fire follows months of mounting frustration over Title 42

Tensions between migrants and local authorities had been on the rise in recent months.

On March 9, a group of 30 migrant shelters and advocacy organizations published an open letter criticizing the treatment of migrants. The group accused authorities of abuse, excessive force and unlawful questioning, according to the AP.

Just a few days later, a large group of migrants, many of them Venezuelan, tried to cross a bridge into El Paso, Texas, but were blocked on the U.S. side by barricades and officers.

The rush across the bridge may have been sparked by false rumors that those with children would be let into the country, the AP reported.

NPR's international correspondent Eyder Peralta, who covers Mexico, says it's worth noting that since the Trump administration, the U.S. has continually narrowed the ways that people can seek asylum. Mexico has by and large gone along with those policies.

Title 42, a pandemic-era health measure, restricted immigration on the southern border, allowing authorities to expel migrants who might otherwise qualify for asylum. In December, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the policy could remain in effect until May, delaying a possible influx of border crossings.

James Fredrick, a journalist and documentarian in Mexico City who covers migration, told NPR's Morning Edition that the policy has remade life in border cities like Cuidad Juárez, putting a huge strain on shelters, humanitarian workers, municipal services and the migrants themselves.

"It means a lot of migrants are living in the streets right now," he said. "It's very visible. Some migrants are very desperate."

Migrants and authorities have clashed in detention centers before

Police officers carry an injured migrant following the fire in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico on Monday.
Herika Martinez / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
Police officers carry an injured migrant following the fire in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico on Monday.

In October, Venezuelan migrants hoping to enter the U.S. from Mexico rioted inside an immigration center in Tijuana, an event the AP says "had to be controlled" by police and National Guard troops.

Some 40 migrants stormed the National Migration Institute facility in Tijuana and incited roughly 160 others being held there — reportedly after being deported from the U.S. — to join them in protest, according to the Spanish news agency EFE.

Earlier, in late 2021, dozens of migrants rioted in what the AP calls Mexico's largest detention center, in the southern city of Tapachula.

The city, which borders Guatemala, has been home to repeated clashes between migrants and authorities in recent years, including one March 2022 riot that prompted Mexico's National Migration Institute to temporarily suspend operations there.

Following Monday night's fire, one of Mexico's national newspapers, Reforma, ran a photo on its front page showing the uncensored bodies of migrants who died.

That, says NPR's Peralta, speaks to the dehumanization of migrantsacross the region.

Revisit how this news unfolded in NPR's live blog.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Emily Olson
Emily Olson is on a three-month assignment as a news writer and live blog editor, helping shape NPR's digital breaking news strategy.
Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.