© 2021
In touch with the world ... at home on the High Plains
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Immigrant rights groups slam Biden administration's immigration policies after deadly fire in Mexico

 Juarez resident Isabel Aguilera joined with migrants from Central and South America following a deadly fire that killed 40 at a migrant holding facility in the Mexican border city on March 27, 2013.
Julian Aguilar
The Texas Newsroom
Juarez resident Isabel Aguilera joined with migrants from Central and South America following a deadly fire that killed 40 at a migrant holding facility in the Mexican border city on March 27, 2013.

The deaths of dozens of migrants at an immigration facility in Ciudad Juarez Monday has amplified criticism of President Biden’s asylum policies as the White House considers what advocates say are more extreme measures.

The death count from a fire at the city’s offices of Mexico’s National Institute rose to 40 after authorities said migrants started the blaze in protest of their imminent deportation. A video obtained by NPR and Texas Public Radio appears to show guards at the facility walking away from a holding area where the fire began.

On Tuesday morning dozens of migrants and their supporters gathered outside of the facility – under the watchful eye of Mexican National Guard and Chihuahua state police officers – and demanded answers from authorities.

But the tragedy also prompted immigrant rights organizations to point the finger at Biden for what they said are policies that lead to the “criminalization” of asylum seekers in the United States and Mexico. The fire Monday was reportedly preceded by an enforcement action conducted by local authorities who rounded up some migrants and detained them at the center.

“As we await updates, we expect an explanation from officials about the cause of this terrible tragedy and why these migrants were in detention,” said Blanca Lomeli, the Mexico Country director for HIAS, a Jewish humanitarian group that provides services to refugees and migrants in 16 countries. “Policies in effect in Mexico and the U.S. have created a situation where asylum seekers are treated like criminals when they should have access to humane, orderly and equitable conditions and processes at the border.”

Border & Immigration Video shows Mexican guards walking away as deadly immigration detention facility fire rages Dan Katz

Despite the Biden administration’s pledge to undo several of former President Trump’s immigration policies, many have remained in place. They include Title 42, a public health declaration that began in 2020 in what the previous administration said was a way to curb the spread of COVID-19. Biden’s efforts to undo the policy have been partially stalled by court action, but his administration has been accused of blocking migrants’ legal right to seek asylum by keeping the order in place.

“We are angry, but we are also tired. Angry and tired at having to make yet another statement in order to convince those in power on both sides of the border that it is unacceptable and inhumane to rest the weight of politics on the shoulders of those looking for safety at our borders,” said Marisa Limón Garza, the executive director of Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center’s in El Paso. “This is another horrific tragedy resulting from punitive and racist enforcement and border deterrence policies that have only resulted in hundreds of migrant deaths.”

Title 42 is set to end in May, but the administration is moving forward with a new directive that would bar migrants from seeking asylum if they didn’t seek safe haven in another country first. The so-called “transit ban” could lead to more migrants being denied entry to the United States, the Washington Office on Latin America said in an analysis.

“Ongoing negotiations with Mexico may enable thousands of removals of non-Mexican citizens across the land border,” wrote WOLA’s Adam Isacson.

The transit ban was posted to the Federal Register for public comment last month and tens of thousands of people have submitted comments in opposition to the proposal, including several who argue the policy would cement the notion that Biden is as extreme on immigration policy as his predecessor was.

“There are two choices here, but only one right answer. The Biden administration must stand with communities who are to welcome and withdraw the asylum ban rule,” Bilal Askaryar, the campaign manager with #WelcomeWithDignity, said in a statement Wednesday.

The Biden administration has defended its action by arguing the measures need to be taken to secure the border and restore order as the number of undocumented immigrants who have been apprehended has surged since he took office. He’s also repeatedly called for Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform, which appears unlikely given the GOP majority in the House of Representatives.

His administration has also tried policies that have been described as a compromise, including a plan announced in January that would allow some migrants legal entry into the United States. Under that policy 30,000 people from Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela and Haiti would be paroled into the country under current immigration laws as they seek relief in the United States.

The process allows someone who would otherwise not be allowed to temporarily stay in the United States, according to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has sued to stop its implementation however arguing in court filings “unlawfully creates a de facto pathway to citizenship.”

Copyright 2023 Texas Public Radio. To see more, visit Texas Public Radio.

Julián Aguilar | The Texas Newsroom