The fatal blaze comes as border cities across Mexico have been flooded with migrants turned back from the United States and more arriving from other countries.
CIUDAD JUÁREZ, Mexico — Katiuska Márquez said she was begging for money on the streets of Ciudad Juárez on Monday afternoon when Mexican migration officers took her and her family to a migration detention facility just across the border from El Paso, Texas.
Hours later, the 23-year-old Venezuelan was released along with her two young children and husband, but she said the authorities wouldn’t release her older brother, Orlando Maldonado.
One of the last things her brother told her, she said, was “don’t let me die.”
That night, a fire broke out inside the facility, killing at least 38 people and injuring 28 others. Sixty-eight men from Central and South America were being detained at the facility, the Mexican government said. (The government had reported that 40 people were killed, but it later revised the figure.)
Mexican migration authorities told Ms. Márquez to check local hospitals for her 30-year-old brother.
The cause of the fire has yet to be determined, but Mexico’s president said it started when detainees began protesting inside the detention facility — just the latest example of the disorder plaguing Mexican border cities dealing with a crush of migrants heading to the United States in recent months.
President Biden has responded to the extraordinary surge in migration at the southwestern border by trying to dissuade people from crossing illegally, leaning more heavily on Mexico to take in migrants expelled by American border officials and house migrants who must wait in northern Mexico to apply for the chance to enter the United States and request asylum.
The measures have reduced the rush of people into the United States, but they have also added to the relentless buildup of migrants in Mexico, where shelters are overwhelmed and where the authorities have a checkered record on human rights.
“Alongside the Mexican government, the U.S. has direct responsibility for what happens to migrants in Mexico, because they force people to stay in Mexico,” said Rachel Schmidtke, a senior advocate for Latin America at Refugees International.
The Biden administration argues that it is trying to discourage people from taking dangerous journeys to illegally cross into the United States. The administration has also opened legal pathways for migrants from certain countries to apply for humanitarian parole to enter the United States, hoping that a more orderly process will be safer.
Senior administration officials told The Times that since Jan. 5, when the U.S. government launched a new program to allow migrants to apply for a two-year humanitarian parole, there had been a 97 percent drop in illegal crossings by Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans and Venezuelans. The officials said they also have seen a reduction in at least one migrant camp on the Mexican side of the border.
A growing number of migrants have headed to the north of Mexico in recent weeks, many hoping to cross into the United States when the pandemic-era rule that allowed U.S. authorities to swiftly expel migrants expires on May 11.
The detention center fire comes after weeks of building tensions in Ciudad Juárez, which has been strained by the constant flow of arrivals.
“Our patience is running out,” Cruz Pérez Cuéllar, the mayor of Ciudad Juárez, said in a news conference this month, vowing that the city would take a tougher approach to migrants who “could affect the city’s economy and thousands of Juárez and El Paso residents.”
The number of migrants in the city swelled to 12,000, far outstripping the city’s meager shelter capacity, according estimates by the United Nations’ International Office for Migration. Migrants now sleep in churches, hotels and sometimes on the street.
To survive, many of them have taken to selling candies, cleaning windshields and begging for money. Migration officials brought in scores of agents from other parts of the country to help manage the influx.
Human rights groups, in a letter signed this month, denounced what they said were abuses by the migration officers and what they called “the criminalization of migrants.”
The letter said that migrants’ documents were destroyed in a raid on a local hotel on March 8 that appeared to be a joint operation by police officers, the national guard and the Mexican military.
“With the excessive presence, a clear message of intimidation is sent to the people,” the letter said.
Amid the tensions, migrants have also been taking more desperate action to reach the United States.
On March 12, hundreds of people — including women and children — rushed to the border and gathered at a bridge that connects Ciudad Juárez with El Paso, according to local media reports. The migrants begged to cross, but were turned back by law enforcement.
In a video recorded by La Verdad, a local media outlet, a woman carrying a small child on her shoulders shouted, “We just want to pass! Please help us! Enough is enough, we are tired of being here in Juárez! Migration does not leave us alone! It takes away what little we have! Help us!”
The next day, the mayor announced the city would be taking “a stronger stance” on migrants.
Several news outlets said that Mexican authorities had been rounding up migrants in the city who were begging or selling merchandise on the street hours before Monday’s disaster, and that there had been tensions between the detainees and the facility’s staff.
The National Migration Institute, which is responsible for the detention center, declined to comment on the reports.
The Mexican government said it was conducting an investigation into the tragedy, and working with consulates in the migrants’ countries of origin to determine their identity.
The migrants killed in the fire were mainly from Central America and Venezuela, Mr. López Obrador said. Some of the victims were also from Guatemala, the country’s foreign ministry said.
Television footage showed a swarm of police cars, ambulances and other emergency vehicles in the area of the blaze on Monday night. What appeared to be a number of bodies wrapped in large foil blankets could be seen in the facility’s parking lot, and people outside clung to the perimeter fence as emergency responders tended to the victims.
Some of the victims bodies were covered in soot.
Jessika Barrios arrived at the site of tragedy on Tuesday afternoon where a memorial to the victims was forming with candles and signs complaining about the conditions migrants face on the streets of Ciudad Juárez.
Ms. Barrios, originally from the Venezuelan city of Mérida and a former caregiver for the elderly, said she was living in an abandoned construction site with her two daughters, Jhoannys, 8, and Andrea, 5.
Ms. Barrios said she was looking for a Venezuelan friend, José Rafael Mendoza, who went missing on Monday after going to work cleaning the windshields of cars idling in the city’s traffic jams.
“I have no idea if he’s among the victims,” said Ms. Barrios, who has been traveling with her daughters for six months after leaving Ecuador, where they had previously fled to from Venezuela. “But I fear the worst.’’
Tempers were flaring on Tuesday afternoon among the migrants gathering in front of the facility.
“This tragedy is a crime against humanity,” said Juan Pavón, 55, a former bodega owner from San Cristóbal, Venezuela, who is living with his two daughters on the streets of Ciudad Juárez. “We’re pawns in a game between giants. No one cares what happens to us.”
“The place where these people died has no dignity at all,” he added. “It is a prison.”
Rocío Gallegos and Simon Romero reported from Ciudad Juárez, Mexico; Natalie Kitroeff and Emiliano Rodríguez Mega from Mexico City. Maria Abi-Habib, Elda Cantú, José Bautista, Jody García, Mike Ives and Euan Ward contributed reporting.