US-Mexico Border Migrant Crisis: If you don't pay, you don't pass.

Reader in Sociology Dr María López discusses the recent fire in Ciudad Juarez and the added threat of institutional violence facing migrants.

Date: 3 April 2023

Locked up and charred. This is how 39 migrants were found dead in a fire at a migration station in Ciudad Juárez, on the US-Mexico border, on Monday 27 March. The fire occurred at the immigration station of the National Migration Institute (INAMI), where dozens of migrants were detained after a raid on the streets of Ciudad Juárez.  

The event has been described as the worst tragedy in living memory at a government-run facility. According to President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the migrants started the fire by burning mattresses in protest at their imminent deportation to their home countries. But security footage published by El Universal shows two immigration officials leaving the scene after the fire broke out, leaving the detainees trapped and unable to escape the flames.  

Why did the guards leave without letting them out? Why were the migrants locked up in cells? How are undocumented migrants treated by the authorities in government detention centres?  

The facts raise the debate about the authorities’ treatment of undocumented migrants and, beyond that, about institutional neglect as a mode of political violence against migrants in transit.  

Over the past five years, hundreds of thousands of citizens from countries including Venezuela, Haiti, Nicaragua, Honduras, and Guatemala have fled structural violence, lack of opportunity, neglect by the authorities and the effects of climate change. In transit through Mexico, many are victims of violence by criminal groups and human traffickers. They also face harassment by migration guards.  

This is because the Mexican state forces are working to stop migrants before they reach the US. Under Donald Trump and Joe Biden, the US has restricted access to political and humanitarian asylum by using Title 42, a public health directive that allows the government to take emergency action in a variety of ways, including to prevent the introduction of ‘communicable diseases’. Title 42 was revived by Donald Trump at the time of the Covid-19 pandemic, and which Biden retains. Mexico, for its part, uses the state apparatus (INAMI) to serve the US interests in migration detention centres.  

Increasingly, scholars are examining the institutional neglect of migrants in transit through Mexico as a form of political violence that exacerbates the dynamics of violence against the most vulnerable.  

Fernández de la Reguera (2020) offers a detailed study of the degrading treatment of migrants at the Siglo XXI migration station on Mexico’s southern border in 2018 and 2019. Her study shows how officials arbitrarily detain asylum seekers and refugees and deprive them of their rights, regardless of their age, gender, or their physical condition, including pregnancy or illness. Another researcher, Alejandra Díaz de León, has published extensively on violence and Central American migration including a forthcoming book, Walking Together: Central Americans and Transit Migration Through Mexico.  

Together with Alejandra Díaz de León, I am researching the dynamics of Institutional Machismo manifested in the impunity of harassment and violence against undocumented migrant women by criminal gangs, migration guards and others on their journey north. In January this year, we visited a shelter in Mexico City and heard first-hand the experiences of many women. One of them spoke of the continued practice of extortion by the migration guards: ‘What scared me the most was the National Guard.... If you don’t pay, you don’t pass.’  

Their stories also reveal how their safety and emotional stability are left in the hands of civil and religious organisations with scarce resources and the goodwill of anonymous citizens.  

Many women spoke of Ciudad Juárez as a place where they would work while they waited for papers to settle in the US, where with time and effort, they could obtain permission to reunite with their families.  

The fire at the Ciudad Juárez migration station highlights another obstacle that few are aware of: that the harsh policies and practices used to control and contain migrants at the US-Mexico border are a form of political violence that lacks respect for human rights.  

Dr María López