Four people stand at the bottom of a hill as a group of border patrol stand guard behind a barb wired fence.

The Deadly Consequences of Criminalizing Migrants

On March 28, 39 men died inside their cells after a fire broke out. They, along with 30 other migrants, had traveled from Central and South America to seek asylum in the U.S. before being detained at the immigration detention facility in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, mere miles from the border at El Paso, Texas. Security footage shows guards walking away, making no attempt to release the migrants trying to escape the fire. The Ciudad Juárez fire tragedy is one of the “deadliest incidents at an immigration lockup in the country” (Aljazeera), capturing how the criminalization of migrants and asylum seekers is deadly. 

“The extensive use of immigration detention leads to tragedies like this,” said Felipe González Morales, the United Nations Special Rapporteur for the Human Rights of Migrants (Twitter). “The immigration detention of adults, in accordance with International Law, should be an exceptional measure and not a general one.”


Support the survivors and families of the Ciudad Juárez fire with relief, medical care, and legal support, including getting them asylum.

• Back efforts ending the criminalization of migrants including cutting the funding of immigration detention agencies and ending Texas’s Operation Lone Star.

• Donate to organizations supporting migrants, asylum seekers, and undocumented people like Derechos Humanos, Abolish ICE NY NJ Coalition’s campaign Dignity Not DetentionImmigrants Rising, and BLMP.

Migrant advocates had previously condemned the detention facility’s poor infrastructure, use of force, and overcrowding. Weeks prior, the facility and city officials were accused of abusing migrants and using excessive force to detain them in a letter by dozens of migrant shelters and advocacy groups (AP News). 

“Organizations witness the repeated use of all kinds of harassment by agents of the National Institute of Migration, the National Guard, and the Secretary of State Public Security against people in mobility and locals. The constant complaints of theft of belongings, extortion, and arbitrary detentions show that there is a serious human rights crisis that must be addressed urgently by all the competent authorities” (Integral Human Rights in Action).

The conditions in Ciudad Juárez aren’t exclusive to the city or the U.S.-Mexico border. The U.S. and Mexico’s current approach to immigration prioritizes deterrence, militarization, incarceration, and deportation. These tactics were implemented to address a record influx of people seeking refuge in the States due to economic and political crises and violence, often resulting from U.S. influence and destabilization. It hasn’t stalled immigration. Instead, hundreds of displaced migrants and asylum seekers are stuck in limbo within border communities, with many migrants turning to dangerous alternatives to gain entry. Last year was the most deadly year on record for migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border, with more than 800 migrants dying while trying to cross (CBS News). 

Policies like Title 42, a 2020 public health order that used the pandemic to “override immigration law” by blocking migrants and asylum seekers (PBS), worsen this humanitarian crisis. And despite his initial stance against Title 42, the Biden administration has reinforced and expanded it. 

Most migrant encounters at the southwestern border in March 2022 ended in removal (Pew Research). And more than 8,000 violent incidents against people, including kidnappings, torture, and rape, happened because of these expulsions (Human Rights First). In 2022, over 1 million of the 2.3 million migrants detained by border patrol were expelled under Title 42 (NPR). And 67% of the ICE arrestees had no criminal convictions or charges (CBS News).

In February, the Biden administration proposed new restrictions on asylum seekers, requiring them to apply for asylum first in countries they pass through on their way to the U.S. (PBS). Those who fail to do so, except for Mexican migrants, will be denied asylum in the States. The rule—similar to one the Trump administration attempted in 2019—is meant to curb border crossings further once Title 42 expires in May, adding another barrier to asylum. The UN Refugee Agency urged the U.S. to reconsider implementing the rule, saying it’s “incompatible with the principles of international refugee law” (UNHCR). 

The administration will also begin conducting asylum interviews with migrants detained at Customs Border Patrol (CBP) instead of when they leave custody, continuing another Trump-era program (ABC News). Migrant advocates fear this will lead to more asylum denials since people will face challenges preparing for these interviews while locked in CBP detention (Just Security). And resources like the CBP One, an app asylum-seekers use to get pre-screened and receive appointments, have failed to streamline the process, with migrants unable to secure appointments or even navigate the app (El Paso TimesNBC News). Many rely on Facebook and WhatsApp groups to navigate the app, causing the spread of misinformation about immigration law and false reports that the U.S. is opening its borders. This has caused many incidences where migrants have shown up expecting entry, only to be detained, including at the El Paso border crossing weeks before the Ciudad Juárez fire (AP News). 

The tragedy at Ciudad Juárez is not an outlier—it’s the direct result of an immigration system that is more invested in securing arbitrary borders than protecting people in need of refuge. And upholding asylum bans does not deter immigration. It kills. 


• The Ciudad Juárez fire is one of many tragedies resulting from inhumane immigration policies. 

• The Biden administration upholds anti-immigrant policies. 

• Asylum bans don’t deter immigration, they kill migrants.

2400 1600 Dominique Stewart

Dominique Stewart

Dominique is a writer and editor whose interests lie within the intersections of social justice and culture.

All stories by : Dominique Stewart
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