Border Immigration Law & Justice Center in El Paso responds to the horrific tragedy at a Juárez detention facility.
The news broke late on the evening of Monday, March 27, and through the next few hours and into the next day, horrifying images and details followed.
Most of the victims were migrants from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Venezuela. Some had been there for several days or even weeks; some had been rounded up from the streets just a few hours before. They were all placed in overcrowded cells, and their requests for clean water were denied.
Fire extinguishers were later found unused; keys that could have opened the cells had been lost, and the staff was either unwilling or unable to help.
Out of the 68 men held in those cells, 40 of them died from the flames or from the smoke. The rest suffered serious injuries.
This photo below was taken from the El Paso side of the border; the red arrow marks the detention center.
The distance between the detention center and the U.S. border at El Paso, Texas, is less than one-quarter of a mile. It is located directly at the base of one of the six bridges that span the Rio Grande.
Photo courtesy of Austin Kocher. @ackocher
“The people who work with migrants were devastated,” says Vanessa Johnson, former interim executive director for ILJ affiliate Border Immigration Law & Justice Center (formerly Justice for Our Neighbors El Paso.)
“But there was not the outcry I would have expected or hoped for from our elected officials. Forty individuals lost their lives. To me, the outcry was not commensurate with the tragedy.”
The governor of the state of Chihuahua, Mexico— Juárez is its biggest city—estimates there are as many as 35,000 migrants in the city now waiting to cross into the United States. There are additional estimates of more than 1,000 migrants crossing the border daily who will eventually be sent back to Mexico through different borders and ports of entry. Many of them will return to Juárez to repeat the process.
“The people of Juárez are legitimately overwhelmed,” says Vanessa. “It’s a heartbreaking situation, but they see it every day, and the desperation just grinds them down.
“I understand their frustration,” she continues. “We’re foisting all our problems of outsourcing enforcement onto a third country not equipped to deal with it. Juárez does not have the shelter capacity, or the infrastructure to help such large numbers of people.”
On the U.S. side, the notorious CBP One app—the only way for asylum seekers to secure one of the limited appointments needed for entry into the United States—is not sufficient to allow people to be processed in a smooth, efficient, and fair manner.
With so many asylum seekers trying to log on, the app is prone to stall and flash the dreaded 504 error message. The languages available are limited to English, Spanish, and Haitian Creole—leaving Indigenous people unable to access the needed information. The app often cannot recognize the faces of people with dark complexions, which means they can’t get an appointment.
The CBP One app is flawed. But U.S. immigration policy is also deeply—and morally—flawed.
The decades-long focus on deterrence, detention, profits, and militarization has had a dehumanizing effect on how government leaders and ordinary citizens view—and value—the lives of migrants.
“I firmly believe this is an example of state violence,” says Vanessa emphatically. “This is the United States saying we don’t care if these people die from exposure in the desert or if they die falling off a 30-foot wall.”
Vanessa has little hope for any kind of meaningful change in the near future.
“We can continue with our humanitarian efforts,” she says. “We can bring food to people living in the streets and try to provide adequate shelter for them. But in the end, we’re just putting out fires.
“The problem is political,” she adds. “And the solution must be political, too.”
Until then, newly hired BILJC Executive Director David Jackson leads his team as they continue to work for the release of migrants from unsafe and inhumane detention facilities, and to fiercely advocate for the full restoration of the U.S. asylum system.
For further reading:
***Vanessa Johnson holds a master’s degree in Latin American and border studies. She has lived in El Paso most of her life, and remembers the days when crossing the border was “just like going from one side of the city to the other to visit your family, to work, to do business, or to go shopping.”
She is the author of Towards an American Union, in which she advocates for the international community to embrace a new human rights agreement on migration, borders, and the right to free movement.
Vanessa is further featured in this interview Voices from the Border, discussing the reality of life in the largest bi-national community in the Americas.
For more about the fire, its aftermath, and other issues at the border, please check out the El Paso Times.
If you are on Twitter, consider following immigration reporter Lauren Villagran @laurenvillagran and photographer J. Omar Ornelas @fotornelas.
Cover photo: Mani Albrecht