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Biden Was Warned U.S. Border Policies Made Tragedy Inevitable. Then a Deadly Fire Broke Out.

A year ago, 40 men were killed in one of the deadliest incidents involving immigrants in Mexico’s history. A ProPublica-Texas Tribune examination shows that landmark shifts in U.S. border policies helped sow the seeds of a tragedy.

Stefan Arango, a 31-year-old Venezuelan husband and father, felt immediately nauseated by the smells of sweat, urine and feces when Mexican guards ordered him into the cinder block cell in the border city of Ciudad Juárez. The tile floor was strewn with trash, and several men inside lay on flimsy mats that were incongruously covered in rainbow-colored vinyl. The windows were so small that they didn’t allow in much light or air. And, perhaps mercifully, they were so high that the men couldn’t see they were just a short stroll from El Paso, Texas, the destination they had risked everything to reach.

It was March 27, 2023, and Arango had been detained by Mexican authorities who had agreed to help the United States slow the record numbers of migrants crossing the border. A guard allowed Arango to make a one-minute call to his younger sister, who’d come to Juárez with him and whom he’d left waiting at a budget hotel nearby. She sobbed, worried that he was going to be deported back to Venezuela.

“Don’t cry, everything will be fine,” he assured her. “Whatever happens, don’t go anywhere. I’ll be back.”

He couldn’t tell exactly how many men were inside the temporary detention center, maybe more than 100, but new detainees were being brought in while others were being taken away. Those milling around him were grumbling. They said they hadn’t been given water for hours. They hadn’t been given enough food. No one was giving them answers. Why were they being held? What was Mexico going to do with them?

At about 9:20 that night, some of the men began banging on the metal bars that ran along the front wall of the cell, demanding to be released. One of them reached up and yanked down a surveillance camera; another climbed the door and pulled down a second camera. Others started to pile the sleeping mats against the bars until they blocked the guard’s view.

At least one of them flicked a lighter. Within minutes, the cell was engulfed in flames and smoke. Arango pleaded with a guard: “Brother, don’t leave us here.” But the guard turned his back, saying, “Good luck, dude,” as he fled.

Surveillance camera video taken from inside the detention center at the time of the fire shows the flames and smoke spreading through the cell as the guards scramble to open a side door before leaving the detainees trapped inside. Credit:Obtained by ProPublica and The Texas Tribune

Arango rushed to a bathroom, now filled with dozens of others, all screaming for help. He turned the shower on to wet his hoodie, thinking it would protect him from the heat. Then the lights went out. Everything stung — his eyes, his nose, his skin. He sat himself down and whispered a prayer. The detainees’ cries stopped, and he could hear the sounds of bodies hitting the floor.

When he opened his eyes, he was wrapped in a mylar blanket, lying in the parking lot amid rows of bodies. Arango pulled the cover off his face, gasped for air and raised his hand, hoping to be seen. He heard a woman’s voice shout, “Someone lives among the dead!”

Forty men were killed and more than two dozen were injured in one of the deadliest incidents involving immigrants in Mexico’s history. Investigators put the blame for the incident on the migrants who set the blaze and the guards who failed to help them. The United States urged immigrants to take heed of the tragedy and pursue legal methods for entering the U.S., without acknowledging that some of those caught in the fire were attempting to do just that when they were detained. However, an examination by ProPublica and The Texas Tribune underscores that it was the foreseen and foreseeable result of landmark shifts in U.S. border policies over the last decade, by which the Trump and Biden administrations put the bulk of the responsibility for detaining and deterring staggering numbers of immigrants from around the world onto a Mexican government that’s had trouble keeping its own people safe.

The bodies in the Juárez parking lot were not only evidence of the tragic consequences of U.S. policies, but they were also graphic representations of the violence and economic upheaval raging across the Americas. The dead had traveled there from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Colombia and, like Arango, Venezuela. Over the past decade, growing numbers of people from these countries have traversed Mexico and crossed the U.S. border to file claims for asylum that take years to resolve and allow them to live and work in the United States during that time.

When first running for president, Donald Trump used the scale of the arrivals to jolt American politics, vowing to build a wall between the United States and Mexico. As president, he effectively turned Mexico into a wall, pressuring that country’s president to take unprecedented steps that required nearly everyone applying for asylum to wait there as their cases went through U.S. immigration courts. And citing the pandemic, he ordered border officials to quickly return immigrants to Mexico or to their home countries under a little-known section of the public health code — Title 42 — that allows the government to limit the numbers of people allowed into the country in an emergency.

Democrats denounced the measures as inhumane, and early in his presidency, Joe Biden moved to loosen those policies, only to keep versions of some when the rising numbers of migrants coming into the United States started to cause political repercussions for him and his party.

The result was chaos on both sides of the border, although as numerous experts had predicted, the worst of it unfolded in Mexico. Squalid tent encampments sprouted in Mexican border cities that didn’t have sufficient shelters and other resources. Frustrations among migrants fueled protests that blocked major roads and bridges. Mexican officials cracked down harder by rounding up immigrants and packing them into already overcrowded detention centers.

A Biden administration official would not comment on the role U.S. policies played in the fire, except to say that it had taken place in a facility that “was not under the jurisdiction of the U.S. government.” A White House spokesperson expressed condolences to the families of those who died — but also didn’t answer questions about the policies that contributed to the incident and are still in place. Instead, he pointed to the ways that Biden had expanded legal pathways for immigration, calling it the largest such effort in decades.

U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva, a Democrat from Arizona, was among many legislators who’d warned Washington, and specifically Biden, that such a tragedy was inevitable. “The whole system in Mexico is partly a creation in response to initiatives that the United States began,” he said in an interview. “That’s why we should care, because we bear some responsibility.”

How We Got Here

The dangers of outsourcing immigration enforcement to Mexico were clear to experts and political leaders on both sides of the border long before the Juárez detention center erupted in flames.

“Mexico is simply not safe for Central American asylum seekers,” wrote the union that represents the U.S. government’s asylum officers as part of a lawsuit against Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” program in 2019. “Despite professing a commitment to protecting the rights of people seeking asylum, the Mexican government has proven unable to provide this protection.”

Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission reported that year that migrants were being held in filthy, overcrowded detention centers, at times without sufficient food and water. Those conditions, the commission said, were spurring immigrants to protest, including by setting fires. Prior to the fatal Juárez fire, at least 13 such incidents had occurred at detention facilities across the country, including at the one in Juárez. The earlier incident there occurred in the summer of 2019 and was started in a similar manner, when disgruntled migrants set their sleeping mats on fire. About 60 detainees escaped unharmed.

The Trump administration rejected the warnings, saying that the system was clogged with meritless claims and that turning away people who didn’t qualify for protection made it easier to address the needs of those who did. The Trump campaign didn’t respond to questions about the impact of the former president’s policies, except to say it did a better job than Biden of keeping migrants safe by removing the incentives for them to make the journey to the border. In a statement, spokesperson Karoline Leavitt said that under a second Trump term, the message would be, “DO NOT COME. You will not be allowed to stay, and you will be promptly deported.”

Asylum is a thornier issue for Biden because of divisions within his own party, with some advocating for a more generous system and others worried that the existing backlog makes the system virtually impossible to fix. As a result, his presidency has been marked by moves aimed at placating both sides.

On his first day in office, Biden suspended Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” policy — officially called the Migrant Protection Protocols — which he’d said had “slammed the door shut in the face of families fleeing persecution and violence” and created humanitarian suffering in Mexico. And he began rolling back the Title 42 COVID-19 restrictions by exempting unaccompanied minors from the ban. All at once, a border that had nearly been shut to asylum seekers had a new opening at a time when historic numbers of immigrants were on the move globally. Among them were nearly eight million Venezuelans, fleeing an authoritarian government and a collapsed economy, in one of the largest displacements in the world.

The Pabón family is among the nearly 8 million Venezuelans who have fled their country over the last decade, constituting one of the largest population displacements in the world. This short documentary follows the family from Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, to their first months in the United States, where they’ve asked for asylum and struggle to build new lives. Credit:Gerardo del Valle/ProPublica

Within weeks, the numbers of people attempting to cross the southern border reached levels that hadn’t been seen in decades. Biden reached out to Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador for help. After denouncing the conditions that migrant families had been forced to endure in Mexico, the Biden administration began pressuring that government to take them back. “We’re trying to work out now with Mexico their willingness to take more of those families back,” Biden said at a news conference, adding later, “I think we’re going to see that change. They should all be going back.”

On March 19, 2021, his administration announced the U.S. would send 2.5 million COVID-19 vaccines to Mexico. That same day, López Obrador declared that he’d close Mexico’s southern border to nonessential traffic, citing the pandemic.

Immigrants continued to come nonetheless. By the end of Biden’s first year in office, the Border Patrol reported that encounters with immigrants had soared to 1.7 million, compared with 859,000 in 2019. The numbers rose further, to 2.2 million, in 2022, the year that Biden announced plans to lift Title 42 entirely. Republican governors in 24 states immediately filed suit against the administration to stop the move. And one of those governors, Greg Abbott, began sending busloads of people who’d crossed the border into Texas to cities controlled by Democrats, including New York, Chicago and Denver.

Biden, faced with a political crisis on top of a humanitarian one, responded with an array of measures. While fighting to overturn Title 42 in court, his administration expanded its reach to allow U.S. officials to immediately expel to Mexico Venezuelan, Haitian, Cuban and Nicaraguan migrants. He required asylum seekers to use an app, CBP One, to make appointments for entry to the United States and authorized border officials to turn back those who hadn’t done so. He also barred some people from seeking refuge in the U.S. if they didn’t first apply for asylum in a country they passed through en route.

In a nod to immigrant advocates, he paired that move with a program that allowed about 30,000 people from the countries that were newly affected by Title 42 to apply for temporary humanitarian visas from home, as long as they passed a background check and had a financial sponsor in the U.S. He also opened centers in some Latin American countries from which migrants could apply to come legally. But none of it seemed to have a lasting effect on making his party happy, deterring new migrants from arriving at the border or keeping them safe.

In January 2023, two months before the fire, nearly 80 Democrats in Congress, including Grijalva, wrote Biden a letter to say that they remained concerned.

“As the administration well knows, current conditions in Mexico — the primary transit country — cannot ensure safety for the families seeking refuge in the United States,” the letter read. “We urge the Biden Administration to engage quickly and meaningfully with members of Congress to find ways to adequately address migration to our southern border that do not include violating asylum law and our international obligations.”

Days before the fire, the Congressional Research Service echoed that warning, saying that the buildup of immigrants in Mexico had “strained Mexican government resources and placed migrants at risk of harm.”

Maureen Meyer, a vice president at the Washington Office on Latin America, said, “There’s an enormous human cost to prioritizing enforcement over human wellbeing and safety. The fire is probably one of the most egregious examples of what could happen.”

A City on Edge

Arango had fled his country a decade ago because, he said, supporters of the country’s authoritarian President Nicolás Maduro had threatened him for campaigning on behalf of the opposition. He also found it impossible to make a living for himself and his two children on the roughly $40 he earned monthly as a soccer player and coach in Maracaibo, Venezuela’s second-largest city. He initially moved to Colombia but left there after struggling to find gainful employment and moved again to Bolivia, where he met a woman whom he married.

In early 2023, Arango was still playing soccer, and there were signs his wife might be pregnant. He’d been hearing upbeat stories from Venezuelan friends who had migrated to the United States and were settling into new jobs. Because the United States had broken relations with the Maduro government, Venezuelans did not have to clear the same immigration hurdles as other nationals. They were largely shielded from deportation and had not been subjected to Title 42.

Arango’s sister, Stefany, had a boyfriend who’d made it across the border and gotten a construction job in Austin. Arango believed he could do the same.

In about 36 grueling days — across hundreds of miles of inhospitable terrain — Arango and Stefany, 25, arrived in Juárez in mid-March 2023, riding on top of a cargo train. They found themselves in the middle of a city on edge. Juárez, with 1.5 million residents, had long been more of a way station for immigrants headed to the United States than a final destination. But the U.S. gateway that had been open to Venezuelans was now shut. They were subject to the same asylum restrictions as Central Americans. They couldn’t cross the border without an appointment, and there were only about 80 appointments available each day through El Paso.

Juárez’s shelters and hotels were filled beyond capacity, and thousands of migrants set up camps under bridges and along the banks of the Rio Grande. They crowded busy intersections and shopping districts, begging for food, money and work. Many complained that they had been robbed by Mexican criminal organizations and harassed by the police and immigration agents. The longer they stayed, the more frustrated they and the city struggling to accommodate them became.

The day Arango and his sister arrived, hundreds of migrants blocked one of the bridges that connected Juárez with El Paso and pleaded with U.S. officials to be let in. The United States deployed officers in riot gear and raised a curtain of concertina wire to keep them out, while Mexico used the national guard to disperse them on the other side. Juárez Mayor Cruz Pérez Cuéllar seemed to sum up his city’s sentiment the next day. “The truth is that our patience is running low,” he said. “We’ve reached a tipping point.”

The city went on heightened alert and began putting more immigrants in detention. During the first three months of 2023, officials in Juárez conducted at least 110 sweeps around the city — almost as many as they had done in the entire previous year. On the day of the fire, Arango had left his sister at the hotel to look for work and buy food. He was with a handful of other immigrants walking near the border fence when they were picked up by Mexican immigration agents and taken to the city’s only immigration detention facility.

Built in 1995, the facility sits on the banks of the Rio Grande, which forms the border between Mexico and the United States. The detention center was divided into two cells about 100 feet from each other. One was completely bare and was meant to hold no more than 80 men, while the other had bunk beds and could hold up to 25 women. Two former detainees said the men’s cell had four toilets and as many showers.

Alis Santos López, a 42-year-old Honduran, had been held in the facility for two days by the time Arango arrived — and according to Mexican law, which called for him to be released after 36 hours, he shouldn’t have been. Unlike Arango, he wasn’t hoping to start a new life in the United States. He was trying to get back to the life he’d already established. Santos had worked for 10 years as a roofer in New Jersey but was deported at the end of 2022 back to his native Honduras.

The economic hardships and violence that had pushed him to abandon his country before seemed to have worsened. The municipality where his family lived, Catacamas, was among the most violent in Honduras. When he and his wife discovered men lurking around their house one night, he thought they’d targeted him because he’d come home with money that he’d earned in the United States.

Within weeks, he’d set out again for New Jersey, this time with his wife, Delmis Jiménez; three children; daughter-in-law; and grandson in tow. The group said they had been robbed and extorted throughout the journey and had run out of money in southern Mexico. Santos went on without them, promising that he’d send for them. But Juárez officials at the local bus station intercepted him shortly after he arrived.

Rodolfo Collazo, then 52, was one of two federal immigration agents and three private security guards on duty at the facility on the night of the fire. Trained as a computer engineer, he was still relatively new to the job and had taken it because he couldn’t find anything better in his field. It paid under $10,000 a year, but Collazo was able to cobble together enough to make ends meet by working a second job with a ride sharing company.

Records from Mexican prosecutors’ investigation into the fire, court testimony and interviews, including with officials who worked at the detention facility, indicate that it was woefully ill equipped to hold immigrants for long periods. Not only were there insufficient accommodations for the detainees to eat and sleep, the cell lacked basic safety equipment like working fire extinguishers and smoke detectors and had no emergency exits. Scuffles and hunger strikes among detainees were not uncommon.

About 6 feet tall, with salt-and-pepper hair, Collazo was sometimes torn between his sympathy with the immigrants’ plight and the responsibilities of his job. They’d sometimes complain that they’d run out of basic supplies like soap and shampoo, and he’d go out and buy them when he had a little extra money. On the night of the fire, he noticed that the detainees seemed more agitated than normal, and he tried to make small talk to calm them. But he was summoned away from the facility to transport a couple of Salvadoran children — brothers ages 10 and 14 — to a different facility for minors.

When he returned about half an hour later, thick black smoke was already billowing out of the building. The guards were scrambling outside and told him they couldn’t find the keys to the men’s cell. Collazo ran into the building but felt his eyes sting and his lungs fill with smoke. “I’ve never felt anything like it,” he said. “It was horrible.” Barely able to see or breathe, he turned back around. (In a surveillance camera video taken from inside the detention center at the time of the fire, which was made public as part of an investigation by La Verdad, El Paso Matters and Lighthouse Reports, an agent is heard saying that she had told the detainees she was not going to open the cell.

Firefighters descended on the scene and managed to fight through the flames, break into the holding cell and attempt to rescue those inside. Paramedics rushed to care for those who were unconscious. The dead, including Santos, were laid together in four neat rows on the cold asphalt outside the building.

A Mexican soldier saw one of the bodies move. It was Arango.

Uncertain Future

To mark the first anniversary of the fire, there was a march in downtown El Paso. Across the border in Juárez, residents hung mylar blankets on the fence surrounding the detention facility to honor each of the immigrants who died there and celebrated a special Mass at Our Lady of Guadalupe Cathedral. “It’s a tremendous tragedy,” El Paso Bishop Mark Seitz said, citing the loss of “40 young, aspiring lives.” But the greater tragedy, he said, would be to “forget the persons and families that continue to suffer.”

By then, the Mexican government had closed the Juárez facility and temporarily suspended operations at 33 others across the country. The head of Mexico’s National Migration Institute, which enforces the country’s immigration laws, was charged criminally with failure to perform his duties, although he remains free and on the job. The institute didn’t respond to requests for comment. Agency officials have previously defended their treatment of immigrants in their custody.

The “Remain in Mexico” policy and Title 42 have been lifted, but Mexico still stands as a critical arm of U.S. immigration enforcement. With poll after poll showing that Americans consider securing the border a priority as the country prepares for this year’s presidential elections, the Biden administration continues to require asylum seekers to use an app to gain entry to the United States. It’s also fighting in court to be allowed to bar some people from seeking asylum if they hadn’t asked for refuge in countries they passed through en route to the United States. That rule is significant because nearly every asylum applicant has crossed through another country — especially Mexico — before reaching the U.S.

Stephanie Leutert, an immigration expert and former Biden administration official, said she’s not surprised that the fire hasn’t forced the administration to reverse course. “If migrant deaths would lead to policy change, we would have changed policies a long time ago," she said.

Seitz, who advocates for immigrants, lamented the same thing. “I wonder how many deaths it’s going to take,” he said in an interview. “Will there be a time when our country wakes up? What will it take for us to recognize that we need to head on a different course?”

Meanwhile, the repercussions of those policies continue to play out in the lives of those affected by the fire.

At a federal prison about 10 miles from where he once worked, Collazo is now the one behind bars, along with two Venezuelan immigrants and several of his former co-workers. He’s awaiting trial for involuntary manslaughter and causing injury to 67 men for his role in the fire. He says he is not guilty. If convicted, he could spend the rest of his life in prison. His wife, María Trujillo, and children have sold their cars and borrowed money to pay his legal fees, which so far exceed $50,000. Trujillo, 53, has begun cleaning houses and selling tamales. Meanwhile, his daughter, Tania Collazo, 35, works extra shifts at a local hospital as a medical assistant. She even traveled to Mexico City last year to appeal for help from López Obrador.

Because they have so little faith in the system, they often do some of the investigating themselves by speaking to other former officials and detainees who might have information that could help Rodolfo Collazo’s case.

“Every day I fall asleep and wake up with the agony of what if the system fails again,” Tania Collazo said. “He’s never getting out.”

Arango spent about three weeks in an induced coma in a hospital in Mexico City after a respiratory arrest. He’d suffered carbon monoxide poisoning and severe damage to his lungs, kidneys and throat. During his monthslong recovery, his moods were as erratic as a ride on a roller coaster — giddy one moment to be alive, distraught to the point of trying to put his fist through a wall when the doctor laid out the complicated medical challenges that stood in the way of his recovery while his wife struggled back in Bolivia on her own. A devastating low point for both of them came when she miscarried their baby, a boy, while Arango was hospitalized.

In September of last year, the Biden administration allowed Arango and his wife, along with others who survived the fire, to enter the United States for humanitarian reasons. The couple traveled by bus to Austin. His sister had already made it there. When Arango, tall and slim, saw her, he smiled and wrapped her in a long, tight hug.

While he said he is thankful to be alive, there are still times he falls into a deep depression. “I’m still working on finding myself again,” he said. “I ask God for time to get back to the Stefan I was before. A better Stefan.”

Jiménez didn’t know her husband had died in the fire until three days after, on her birthday. Santos’ body was sent back to Honduras. His family had returned from southern Mexico to receive it and bury him near their home in Catacamas. Jiménez picked a silver-colored coffin and wore a T-shirt with, “You will always live in my heart,” emblazoned on the front.

“All this suffering,” she thought during the ceremony. “For what?”

His death, however, didn’t deter her and her family from leaving Honduras again. She knew there was a chance that they might meet the same fate trying to get to the United States, but she said she felt even less safe staying in Honduras. So the family set out again, riding buses and walking along railroad tracks, trying to get an appointment through the CBP One app, not understanding they had to be in northern or central Mexico in order to use it. Their feet blistered and their bodies covered with bug bites, they slept in abandoned buildings or on the porches of people who took pity on their plight.

A Mexican nonprofit sent them money for bus tickets to Mexico City, where they continued trying their luck on CBP One. Eventually, after a month, they got an appointment, for last November, the day before Thanksgiving. And they were off to Juárez.

Jiménez, her long black hair tied back in a ponytail, stood atop the dividing line between Juárez and El Paso with her children and grandson. Her small frame tipped back under the weight of her backpack stuffed with clothes and some of her most precious possessions: their wedding rings, a silver watch Santos gave her for Mother’s Day and a framed picture of him. As she walked into the United States, she couldn’t get over how close he’d come.

“It was really just steps for him to fulfill his dreams.”


2024, ProPublica



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