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Observations of Migrants on their Journey through Mexico to the US: Tracking News of Hazards without Dissuasion


The world woke up one morning in late March 2023 to the news that at least 38 Central and South American migrants had died in a fire at a migrant detention center in Mexico’s Ciudad Juárez.

a widely distributed video of the detention center’s closed-circuit cameras showed the building on fire, with migrants trapped inside trying to break the metal bars of their cells – and detention center officers reportedly left them there.

That is what the Mexican government has said migrants started the fire themselves after learning, they would be deported from Mexico – which is increasingly a destination for migrants and asylum seekers – back to their homeland.

The video quickly spread across social media and many Mexican interest groups for migrants And convicted activists the event.

Another group also paid a lot of attention to this tragedy: migrants passing through Mexico.

If a sociologist, I spent nearly a decade studying the impact of violence against Central American migrants in Mexico. I’ve thought about questions such as how migrants en route to the US react to news of violence against other migrants, and whether such news changes their plans.

My research has shown that migrants pay close attention to any information that may give them clues to the dangers that lie between them and the US

Migrants have shared with me that they highly value information about any dangers ahead as they move north, whether from criminal groups or changes in US immigration policy. Migrants use this knowledge to employ different strategies to avoid or at least prepare for suffering — and it may lead them to take different routes to the US border.

Migrants attend a vigil outside the Mexican Immigration Detention Center where migrants died in a fire in Ciudad Juárez in March 2023.
Guillermo Arias/AFP via Getty Images

Understanding Migrants in Mexico

Hundreds of thousands of migrants from all over the world pass through Mexico each year on their way to the US-Mexico border. In April 2023 alone, the US detained more than 211,000 migrants along that border. That statistic coincides with an overall increase of global migration and get up migrants trying to reach the US.

Most migrants crossing the US border come from Latin America countries other than Mexicoincluding Central American countries, but also Peru, Colombia, Venezuela and Cuba.

Most of these are migrants single adults, although a number of them are also families and children. People migrate through Mexico for many reasons, including political instability, lack of job opportunities and violence in their own countries.

My interviews with migrants passing through Mexico show that they tend to spread tragic news widely, such as the June 2022 news of migrants found dead trapped in a tractor trailer in San Antonio. Videos and photos of these and other tragic events, such as the fire in Ciudad Juárez, provide real, vivid images of what can happen if migrants decide to take the same path.

And for these migrants, the images and news stories are not the second-hand information they can question or doubt – images can be interpreted as immutable truths.

How migrants get their news

Migrants do not receive news from New York Times alerts or nightly news.

Their information exchange largely takes place in one underground informal information exchange which spreads news and stories to migrants going to the US via Mexico.

That information is shared, discussed, interpreted and commented on through social media platforms, chat groups and word of mouth. Within 24 hours of the Ciudad Juárez fire, every social media outlet and migrant chat I follow as part of my research, comprising thousands of transit migrants passing through Mexico and Guatemala in real time, had the video and news of the incident.

Some comments and responses in social media and chat groups about the incident prayed for mercy and peace for the dead and their loved ones.

Others asked for a list of the names of the dead, or their place of origin, while people desperately tried to find out if their relatives and friends were among the dead and injured. Still others asked for tips and discussed ways to avoid the same fate, such as asking about alternate routes to the border, or sharing ways to avoid ending up in Mexican migrant detention centers.

A person, seen from below the neck, holds a large framed photograph of a smiling young man wearing a blue shirt and hat.
The father of Francisco Rojche, a Guatemalan migrant who died in a Mexican immigration detention center in March 2023, holds a photo of his son.
Johan Ordonez/AFP via Getty Images

A shared response

Migrants’ reactions to the fire in March 2023 were a common sense of sadness. Migrants acknowledged how close they are to those who lost their lives and expressed a feeling of “that could have been me”.

And yet, in my fieldwork, I have found that these horrific events do not deter migrants’ desire to reach the US. What they are doing is adjusting migrants’ expectations for the future.

Through my fieldwork, I have repeatedly heard migrants tell stories about the appalling conditions in detention centers in Mexico.

They report that these are poor conditionsspoiled food, fleas, lack of clothing or blankets for the cold weather – have triggered hunger strikes and protests.

Broader effects

Another of my key findings is that violent and tragic incidents prompt migrants to avoid any interaction with police or other officials, even under the guise of assistance or support.

For example, my research suggests that stories and images of violence, such as the tragedy in Ciudad Juárez, will create a further lack of trust in the Mexican government. I believe the incident will create certain expectations about the dangers of spending time at the border. If they can, I think migrants are likely to avoid Ciudad Juárez and other areas where they feel trapped.

I believe the fire will also leave a symbolic scar on migrants in Mexico who will collectively remember this event and build their travels around it.

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