PROSPECT HEIGHTS — A fire that killed more than three dozen migrants at the National Migration Institute in Ciudad Juárez — the city that borders El Paso along the U.S-Mexico border — on the evening of March 27 was reportedly started by migrants who set mattresses ablaze to protest their pending deportation.
“As a protest, at the door of the shelter, they put mattresses and set them on fire, and they did not imagine that this was going to cause this terrible tragedy,” Mexico President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said at a news conference. “We assume it was because they found out they were going to be deported.”
In addition to at least 40 people who died, 29 others were injured and are in “delicate-serious” condition, the institute said in a statement. They added that there were 68 men from Central and South America held in the detention center at the time of the fire.
During Pope Francis’ greeting to Spanish-speaking faithful at his March 29 general audience in St. Peter’s Square, he dedicated a silent prayer to the victims and their families.
“Let us pray for the migrants that died yesterday in a tragic fire in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. May the Lord receive them in his kingdom and console the families,” he said before bowing his head in silence.
Bishop Mark Seitz of El Paso said the tragedy “underscores the urgency of addressing the complex humanitarian crisis” at the border.
“Our brother and sister migrants, who are in many cases fleeing extreme violence, persecution, and extreme poverty, deserve dignity, compassion, and the protection of their human rights as children of God,” Bishop Seitz said in a statement. “As a faith community, we are called to respond to their suffering with love, empathy, and support.
“I will continue to call for just and humane immigration policies that respect the dignity and rights of all people,” continued Bishop Seitz, who is the U.S. bishops’ conference migration committee chair.
Bishop Seitz also offered his “deepest and most heartfelt condolences” to the families of the migrants who died and extended “prayers for the swift recovery” of the individuals who were injured.
“As we mourn this devastating loss, I call upon people of all faiths and goodwill to join in prayer for the victims and their families,” Bishop Seitz said. “May our collective efforts lead to meaningful change and help prevent such tragedies from occurring.”
Directly across from El Paso, Ciudad Juárez has long been a hot spot for migrants to gather before they attempt to enter the United States. U.S. Customs and Border Protection have encountered almost 225,000 migrants trying to illegally cross into El Paso between Oct. 1, 2022, and February 2023, according to agency data.
Overall, there have been almost 900,000 total encounters over that time, the data shows.
A few weeks ago, hundreds of migrants — most of them Venezuelans — tried to storm into the U.S. via a bridge connecting Ciudad Juárez and El Paso after rumors circulated that they would be allowed to enter. U.S. border security personnel quickly secured the bridge to stop the attempt.
Dylan Corbett, executive director of the El Paso-based Hope Border Institute — a faith-based immigration advocacy organization that does humanitarian work in both El Paso and Ciudad Juárez — told The Tablet that the fire is a direct result of U.S. pressure on Mexico to up its immigration enforcement, especially at the northern part of the border.
Corbett said Hope has done humanitarian work at the National Migration Institute in Ciudad Juárez in the past, but has not had access in recent months amid the crackdown prompted by the U.S. government.
“We know there’s a direct line that you can draw from the Biden administration pressuring the government of Ciudad Juárez to increase enforcement to the death that we’ve seen,” Corbett said.
“The strategy that we’ve implemented includes as part of its overhead death, so it’s an indictment of our approach,” Corbett continued. “Death can’t be the price of immigration enforcement and there’s nothing stopping us from putting in place a humane and effective and safe process at the border.”
Corbett and other immigration advocates have long been critical of the Biden administration’s border entry deterrent policies that limit migrants’ ability to seek asylum, arguing that they are not just illegal but ineffective given the desperation of many migrants.
They have argued — at a time of record number of migrant crossings at the border — that the administration and Congress need to work on comprehensive reform to the nation’s immigration system and work to address the root causes that force people to migrate in the first place. In the short term, advocates say more effective legal pathways are needed.
“The system we allowed to be created in our name is predicated on pain and death and that is what killed them,” Corbett said. “We have to work to put in place a more just system.”
Bishop Seitz also works with migrants on both sides of the border, calling Ciudad Juárez El Paso’s “sister city.” He said in the aftermath of the fire, he has been in communication with the bishop of Ciudad Juárez.
“I have been in contact with Bishop José Guadalupe Torres Campos, expressed my prayer solidarity with him and the faithful of his diocese, and offered support to him and the people in his pastoral care in the Diocese of Ciudad Juárez,” Bishop Seitz said.