Deadly fire at the U.S.-Mexico border exposes failures of our immigration system

Essay By
Learn more about Laura Collins.
Laura Collins
Director, Bush Institute-SMU Economic Growth Initiative
George W. Bush Institute

There is a refugee crisis in the Western Hemisphere that is treated like a law enforcement problem at the U.S.-Mexico border. Unless that approach changes, we will continue to live with horrific consequences like the fire that killed nearly 40 people in a Mexican government facility in Ciudad Juarez. 

The U.S. government must lead on solutions: appropriate infrastructure to process migrants requesting asylum, additional legal pathways that provide options for those who seek a better life, and cooperation with trusted partners to ensure migrants’ dignity and human rights while they wait for protection.  

Tragedies like this expose the many failures of immigration policies in the U.S. and Mexico to manage migration at the southern border.  

The U.S. has relied on public health guidance – Title 42 – rather than immigration law and policy to manage the border since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. We have refused to update our approach to the border despite a decade of encountering humanitarian migrants, especially children and families. Immigration law has not fundamentally changed since the Reagan administration, leaving the supply of spots in the U.S. inadequate to meet the demand from the thousands of people who arrive at the border every month with hopes of living the American dream.  

In trying to work with the U.S. to manage migration, Mexico often detains and removes migrants from border cities. The Bush Institute supports the U.S. working with its neighbors on this important policy issue, and the fire shows the urgency in which that cooperation must happen.  

It is reasonable to question whether the Mexican government can adequately safeguard the human rights of migrants it detains while working with the U.S. If the reports of what happened in the detention facility are true, Mexican officials did not attempt to release the men who ultimately perished in the fire. Whether the victims and their families will see justice served is an open question.  

The U.S. has also failed at being transparent and providing accurate information to migrants and to residents of border communities. Thousands of migrants are in tent cities near international border crossings waiting for their chance to ask for protection in the U.S. They try to get an asylum appointment through the limited appointment slots in the CBP One app. While they wait, they work odd jobs for cash or panhandle to support their families.  

And no one really knows when a pathway will open for them or where it will be.  

The migrants deserve better. Until we move past the politics and face reality, preventable deaths will mark this refugee crisis.