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What we know about the deadly fire at a migrant processing center in Ciudad Juárez

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UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting in Spanish).

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

That was the sound of protesters in Mexico today calling for justice and also for changes after a deadly fire swept through a migrant processing center in Ciudad Juárez, just across the border from El Paso, Texas. More than three dozen people died. Mexican officials said migrants inside the center caused the fire by igniting a mattress. But there is some skepticism about that from some who were outside waiting to hear if their family and friends survived. Member station KTEP's Angela Kocherga is in Ciudad Juarez near the burned center and joins us now. Hi, Angela.

ANGELA KOCHERGA, BYLINE: Hi, Adrian.

FLORIDO: Tell us what we know so far.

KOCHERGA: Well, I was outside that migrant processing center with the big burned-out front door, and people were temporarily being held there before they were supposed to be either released to await immigration proceedings or deported. And the fire started last night around 10 p.m. our time, Mountain time. There were about 100 people inside. And human rights workers at the scene of the vigil and protest said that at least 41 people had died in that fire. And a small crowd of migrants held a vigil with candles and flowers outside the gates of the center, where they were demanding justice and answers. They want to know exactly what happened, and they also want word about who died in that fire.

FLORIDO: What do we know about the migrants who were being held at this center?

KOCHERGA: Well, Mexican authorities have not given an exact breakdown of nationalities. Mexico's president, during a morning press conference, said most were Central Americans. But migrants I spoke to waiting outside the processing center said the friends or loved ones who they were looking for were mostly from Venezuela. And most had only been there a day or two after being rounded up on the streets of Juarez, like Julianni Lopez. Her friend had been taken into custody and had just been there overnight. And she was looking for that friend, very desperate to hear from him.

JULIANNI LOPEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KOCHERGA: Lopez says that she has not been able to get any information about whether her friend is dead or alive. And she wants justice because, as she put it, they are not animals. And she went on to say, migrants also bleed and have beating hearts. Now she's in Juarez with her husband and baby, hoping to cross into the U.S. hoping to apply for asylum.

FLORIDO: Well, we've heard that those being held at this center were frustrated by some of the conditions there. What were people telling you at the center today about this?

KOCHERGA: Well, people outside - the migrants gathered there - said they were frustrated with being locked up in that processing center. They were upset that the people who were there are being held overnight, that they were going to be deported by Mexico. And migrants on the scene who had been inside said that it was often crowded and poorly ventilated. And they questioned why those on duty did not help migrants escape but left them inside, locked up. Officials have said the mattresses migrants set on fire in protest were blocking the door, and many of those inside suffered smoke inhalation. Firefighters finally arrived on the scene and had to break down another entrance to rescue the people inside.

FLORIDO: What can you tell us, Angela, about how U.S. immigration policy has contributed to the situation that we're seeing along the border right now?

KOCHERGA: Well, U.S. asylum - well, immigration policy, and especially a lack of ability to apply for asylum, has kept many migrants out of the U.S. and stuck in Mexico, often in very difficult and dangerous conditions, while waiting to see if they can get an appointment. And many are using that new CBP One app set up by the U.S. It's supposed to make it a much simpler and safer situation. But there's growing frustration. I heard from many people today about not being able to get an appointment through the app. Now, U.S. officials have blamed poor Wi-Fi in Mexico and high demand for problems with that CBP One app.

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DIANA RODRIGUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KOCHERGA: You're hearing from Diana Rodriguez, who was one of the people - one of the human rights workers leading that protest. And she was demanding, as were others, that Mexico's migration institute director resign. And they're calling for accountability. They want to know what happened, how so many people died, and they want more humane treatment and better policies to protect migrants.

FLORIDO: That's Angela Kocherga of member station KTEP. Angela, thank you.

KOCHERGA: Thank you, Adrian. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Angela Kocherga
Emmy winning multimedia journalist Angela Kocherga is news director with KTEP and Borderzine. She is also multimedia editor with ElPasoMatters.org, an independent news organization.