CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico – México is the cork.
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s immigration policy has totally failed, and what’s worse, it’s costing many lives.
Thirty nine migrants died in a government detention center in this city, thousands wander around the areas that border the United States – exposed to human rights abuses and violations – and AMLO is still bowing to US pressures. The result is a cruel system that mistreats, makes their trek more difficult and, in some cases, kills migrants.
It’s a state crime.
Officials in the López Obrador government implemented a policy of repressing, jailing and criminalizing migrants that culminated in a fire in a detention center – not a shelter, Mr. President – run by the National Migration Institute, an agency within the Ministry of Government. Many of the migrants who died or were injured had been detained, unjustly, for simply begging or washing car windows on the streets of Ciudad Juárez. An investigation is already under way, but I fear that the lowest-level officials will be blamed, while the ones truly responsible for the detentions will go free. As always.
The responsibility for these deaths falls on the Andrés Manuel López Obrador government. That is his immigration policy. Those are his officials. Those are his jails. The migrants were in the custody of the Mexican government, in a federal facility. And he was responsible for their care. The migrants went in alive, and 39 came out dead.
What’s more, it is incredible and deeply sad that the president blamed the migrants for their own deaths. “This had to do with a protest they started,” AMLO said in his first statement on the case. “As a protest, they put mattresses on the door to the shelter and set them on fire. And they did not imagine that was going to cause this terrible tragedy.”
No. This terrible tragedy would not have happened if the migrants had not been unjustly detained and the doors to their cells had been opened at the start of the fire. I and many others have seen the video showing how the guards at the detention center refuse to open the cell doors as the fire expands. It was much more than negligence or incompetence. It was letting them die, burned and asphyxiated.
It did not have to be that way. “The deadly fire in a migrant detention center in Ciudad Juarez was a preventable tragedy,” the UN Human Rights Council declared. “Once again we urgently ask nations to look for alternatives to the detention of migrants.
It is incomprehensible that a country like Mexico, which has sent so many millions of migrants to the United States, treats foreigners crossing its territory toward the north so badly. I spent this week talking with dozens of migrants in Ciudad Juarez and virtually all agree that Mexican authorities are the worst abusers during their entire trek. “The only country that put obstacles before us has been Mexico,” a young Venezuelan I interviewed on TV told me. “We suffered the worst in the Darien jungle, Costa Rica and Honduras, but no officials made us suffer so much. They grab you like you’re a criminal and they tell you, ‘how much do you have?’” for bribes.
The López Obrador government got into this mess, all by itself, by accepting the pressure from two US presidents – first Donald Trump and then Joe Biden – to turn Mexico into a border patrol and waiting room for the United States. Mexico is the wall Trump wanted. But Mexico was not prepared to receive tens of thousands of migrants simultaneously, and did not request the US assistance required to deal with the waves of migrants.
That is what caused this bleak panorama. The streets of Ciudad Juarez, for example, are full of families with hungry and tired children, with not one peso or a place to sleep, walking under the sun or the cold, waiting for who knows what. Because the legal process for entering the United States is very confusing and now requires an application filled out on a cell phone – which, as they showed me, does not work very well and freezes often.
Desperate, they make desperate decisions. They have come so far that they do not want to give up. In just one day, I watched twice as hundreds ran toward the border because of a rumor that the United States was going to receive them. False. The bridges that link Ciudad Juarez to El Paso, Texas, are lined with cement blocks and barbed wire that can completely seal off the border in seconds. That has forced many migrants to take more dangerous routes, crossing the Rio Bravo/Grande and risking the blackmail of coyotes and drug traffickers.
Warning: The problems on the border are not going to get better. On the contrary, when the so-called Title 42 ends – it has allowed the US to swiftly deport migrants because of the pandemic – thousands of migrants will take it as a signal to cross into the United States and apply for asylum. And neither Mexico nor the United States are prepared for the tsunami that’s coming.
The reality is that it is impossible to totally seal off the border and that the normal, historic and centenarian flow of migrants is that the poor and persecuted usually seek shelter in the safer and richer places. And that means that in our continent, southern migrants will come north. That will not stop.
Meanwhile, those of us here in Mexico must change the way we treat migrants. The rule is simple: they must be treated in the same way we would want the United States to treat Mexican migrants.
No one comes to Mexico to die. Least of all in a government jail. The country that should best understand migrants wound up killing 39.