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A fire inside a detention center kills dozens of Central and South American migrants


Mexico's president says migrants who were scared of being deported set mattresses on fire at a Mexican detention center, where 38 people died. At least 28 others were badly injured in that fire in the town of Ciudad Juarez, just across the border from El Paso, Texas. It's the latest in a series of tragedies for migrants from Central and South America who continue to stream toward Mexico's border with the U.S.

Rafael Velasquez is country director for Mexico at the International Rescue Committee. He joins us this morning from Mexico City. Rafael, what did you hear from your team about this particular facility and the migrants who were detained there?

RAFAEL VELASQUEZ: Good morning. For the last couple of weeks, what the team reports that they've seen in Ciudad Juarez is an increase in the number of people arriving to the city. This is mostly because of confusion over the changing norms, misinformation and also to access the new CVP (ph) app so that they could register for an for an interview process. But at the same time, they also report an increase in detentions by Mexican authorities. This has been happening in the streets. This has been happening in hotels. And worryingly, for us, this has been happening in civil society shelters, where we have seen the situations where, arbitrarily, refugees are being picked up by authorities as well.

MARTÍNEZ: I know the Biden administration has been very public in trying to get people not to show up - to not make that journey. But people are, clearly. Is any of this leading up to a buildup that is almost unsustainable there at the border?

VELASQUEZ: We carried out an assessment in various shelters throughout the border - in Tijuana, in Ciudad Juarez, in Matamoros - more than a year ago. And even then, we found that most of the shelters were already at capacity.

MARTÍNEZ: At - most at capacity - and also, I know that the Biden administration is relying on Mexico to house these people. I mean, is it getting to a point, Rafael, where something like this is bound to happen because of the amount of people and stresses that that area maybe can't support?

VELASQUEZ: The Mexico system is under-resourced and is completely strained. Just to give you an idea in terms of numbers, in 2018, Mexico received 18,000 asylum applications. And in 2022, it received over 118,000 applications. Meanwhile, the U.S. keeps putting on norms and regulations that push asylum-seekers back into Mexico. What that is inevitably going to do is it's going to push people into taking illegal pathways to seek asylum.

MARTÍNEZ: So what measures would you like to see in place to maybe better protect migrants who are approaching the border?

VELASQUEZ: There is a question of definitely political will on both sides of the border. There is a question of resourcing asylum systems. There's also an understanding - a better understanding of the crisis that we are facing - the migration crisis that we're facing in Mexico. My team in Mexico City is working with people who escaped the fall of Kabul, people who escape - currently escape the war in Ukraine. We are also helping people that are running away from violence and food insecurity in Central America and the implosion of Haiti, or people who are escaping political pressure in other parts of Americas. I don't think the international community understands the depth of the migration crisis in Mexico. That needs to be resourced, and it needs to be supported not just from the Mexican government, but also from the international community.

MARTÍNEZ: But is it because Mexico is trying to work with the U.S. on this and maybe putting their needs below the U.S.'s needs on immigration?

VELASQUEZ: What I can tell you is that Mexico has historically been a country that has opened its arms to asylum-seekers in times of need. And unfortunately, over the last couple of years, what we've seen is that the systems are now past breaking point. What we saw yesterday - the horrible events of yesterday - was not the first time that that happened. It happened already in Tenosique in 2020, and we see no indication of why that wouldn't happen again unless there's that change both in political will and in resources from the international community.

MARTÍNEZ: Is it sometimes maybe a measure of just building more facilities? Is that something that's possible? Would that alleviate pressure - just to have more places for people to go?

VELASQUEZ: Well, it's important to remember that what happened yesterday was happening at a detention center, which is not the same as a shelter. There are alternatives to detention. We work and encourage governments to look into those alternatives. What happened yesterday, again, was in a detention center in Mexico. To be in an irregular status in Mexico is not a crime. It's an administrative offense. These people were detained over an administrative offense. They were not there because of breaking any laws.

MARTÍNEZ: Title 42 is going to expire in May. What do you think, Rafael, is going to happen once that order is lifted?

VELASQUEZ: So yes, there have been conversations about potentially ending Title 42, and there is the consideration for the asylum back. In fact, this week, the period for U.S. citizens to share their feedback to the administration and ask them to withdraw the proposed regulations should have taken place. If the measure is approved, it will bar asylum-seekers who cross through another country on their way to the southern U.S. border unless they had previously applied for asylum elsewhere. But ultimately, what is important to remember is that the horrible events that happened yesterday will just continue to happen unless the urgent needs to ensure systems are in place to provide safety for people in need for international protection are put in place.

MARTÍNEZ: Rafael Velasquez is the country director for Mexico at the International Rescue Committee. Thank you very much.

VELASQUEZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.