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A deadly fire spotlights problematic migrant detention in Mexico

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

Authorities in Mexico are still investigating the circumstances around a deadly fire at a temporary detention center for migrants on Monday. At least 39 people were killed. This center in the northern border city of Ciudad Juarez was overcrowded, and some migrants had been protesting a lack of food and water. It's all shedding a spotlight on what it's like for people who get detained in Mexico after leaving their home countries. For more, I'm joined by reporter James Fredrick. He covers migration from Mexico City. Hi, James.

JAMES FREDRICK: Hi, Adrian.

FLORIDO: James, can you start by giving us a sense of how many folks are in migrant detention in Mexico?

FREDRICK: Well, what I can tell you is that last year, 2022, Mexican authorities say they detained roughly 440,000 migrants - so almost half a million. Most of them come from Central and South America. But there is a growing number who come from further, from Africa and Asia. These people can be detained for as little as a few hours. Some, though, spend weeks or months in detention. There's really two types of detention centers here. One are permanent, long-term detention centers, and others are temporary detention centers like the one in question in Ciudad Juarez. There's officially space for about 4,000 in long-term facilities, about 1,800 in these temporary facilities. And, you know, the long-term ones are supposed to have better facilities. But I've come to learn that the conditions in Ciudad Juarez are more of the norm, not the exception.

FLORIDO: Well, what can you tell us about what it's like inside one of these detention centers?

FREDRICK: I wish I could give you a firsthand account, but as a journalist, I am legally prohibited from ever entering a Mexican migrant detention center. But I've talked to many migrants who have been inside, and they cite the same issues over and over again - terrible hygiene, little food and water, no running water in bathrooms, massive overcrowding, really inhumane spaces. People who had been inside that Ciudad Juarez facility called it a calabozo, the Spanish word for dungeon. And it's not the first time I've heard that word used by migrants. Humanitarian legal groups are allowed inside. I talked to one of them. This is Wendy Castro. She's the legal coordinator for the Mexico City migrant advocacy group Sin Fronteras.

WENDY CASTRO: (Speaking Spanish).

FREDRICK: She says it's terrible to see so many people for so long without even access to a phone call. They can't see their families. They don't have legal representation. They can't request asylum. Just a whole host of problems inside.

FLORIDO: How did migrant detention come to be like this in Mexico, James?

FREDRICK: Well, I don't know if we would say that there was a time when migrant detention was good or particularly humane in Mexico, but it has certainly gotten worse in recent years. And that's because Mexico is detaining more people and deporting more people in line with U.S. migration policy. But other issues that Castro brought up to me is that, officially, the person in charge of that Ciudad Juarez facility was a military official, which brings up a really concerning point, which is that the Mexican military is very involved in migrant enforcement now. So the same people fighting drug cartels are arresting and detaining migrants.

Another thing - there was a fire at a facility in 2020 where one migrant died and 20 were injured. Castro says her group and others complained about this, said changes need to be made. Clearly, changes weren't made. So while the government says it's going to punish those responsible for the deaths in Ciudad Juarez, there's a lot more that needs to be done to make these facilities more humane.

FLORIDO: I've been speaking with James Fredrick, reporting from Mexico City. Thanks, James.

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