Janine Jackson interviewed Detention Watch Network’s Silky Shah about the fire at the Ciudad Juárez detention center for the March 31, 2023, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.
Janine Jackson: While it was a nightmare, the March 27 fire at a migrant detention center in Ciudad Juárez, that killed at least 40 people and injured dozens more, is inappropriately labeled an “accident”—not when it’s more an illustration of systemic harms that reflect inhumane policy.
Silky Shah is executive director at Detention Watch project. She joins us now by phone from Washington state. Welcome to CounterSpin, Silky Shah.
Silky Shah: Thanks so much for having me on.
JJ: The hundreds of people protesting and, frankly, grieving outside of the Ciudad Juárez Detention Center on Tuesday night, the 28th, they weren’t calling for better fire protections or less overcrowding. The chant that the group took up was “Justicia.”
It isn’t that they aren’t connected, but these are fundamentally different conversations to have, right, about justice or about better conditions?
SS: Yeah, one of the things, when you’re watching the video of the fire taking place, and the guards leaving as men are locked up in the cells at the migrant detention center in Juárez, a lot of it reminded me a lot of what happened during Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans so many years ago, when actually guards just left people locked up in cells as water rose.
And this is what we know about the prison system in the U.S., the jail system in the U.S., and a lot of what the U.S. is doing, which is outsourcing immigrant detention to Mexico, and this has been especially since the Trump administration; the number of people locked up in migrant detention centers, which they call immigration stations, in Mexico has risen dramatically.
JJ: I saw the NBCNews.com headline, “Advocates Decry Inhumane Conditions of Mexico’s Migrant Detention Centers After Deadly Fire.”
That was the headline. And I might sound pedantic, but words mean things. And so this headline tells me that “conditions” are the problem, right, that it’s a Mexican problem, and that it’s only “advocates,” whoever they are, that are mad. And maybe they weren’t even mad until the fire, you know.
So there’s a lot of storytelling happening here. And I just wonder what you make of the way media talk about the fire, and the way that that fits into this bigger narrative.
SS: One of the things about the way immigrant detention is covered, both in the U.S. and now more so in Mexico as the numbers have risen, is an assumption that detention should exist, that people should be detained just because they are on the move. Men who are in these prisons and migrant detention centers in Mexico, they are seeking safety. They are fleeing situations. Most of them are Guatemalan, and they were trying to get into the U.S.
And so what’s happening in that headline is this story that, well, the people who are migrating need to be detained, an assumption already being made about that. The problem is the conditions and not actually anything else, which is: not offering legal pathways, creating more militarization at the border, pushing for deterrence—everything that the U.S. government has been doing for many, many years, and became even that much more heightened since 9/11, and also under the Trump administration.
But the truth is, the Biden administration has continued Trump era policies that have only exacerbated these conditions. So more people are stuck in these towns at the border. And the shelters don’t have availability, people are on the streets, and then they’re pushing to put them in these “migration stations.” And these are the conditions that end up taking place.
And, again, people don’t want to be deported, and they protest inside these situations while people are incarcerated; it’s quite typical.
And what happened here now is that the Mexican government is putting blame on the guards, which should get blamed, but also: what are the conditions that were created where you now have men stuck in these facilities when the fire is happening, and people passing the buck in terms of who’s responsible?
JJ: Yeah, I think that the conversation needs a paradigm shift. Narrative is so important, storytelling is so important, in the way that U.S. media present immigration.
And you’ve written about this and spoken about this, about the idea of there’s good immigrants, and there’s bad immigrants, and narrative plays such an important role. But one of the important things that it does is to say some people, just by virtue of trying to move from one country to another, are criminals, and should be treated as criminals. And that framing really instructs news media in terms of how they tell folks about what’s happening.
SS: Absolutely. You know, the U.S., the “nation of immigrants,” but the U.S. incarcerates more immigrants than anywhere else in the world. And you can’t deny that relationship to mass incarceration in the U.S., because, again, the U.S. is one of the leading incarceraters in the world, and we have a massive prison and jail system.
And the narrative around it, even now in the backlash to the uprisings in 2020, and “tough on crime” narratives, so much of that is placed on immigrants. Now immigrants are “committing a crime.” And the act of being in the U.S. without documentation isn’t technically a crime, but crossing the border is; if you get caught, are now prosecuted, you are convicted of a crime, and could spend anywhere from 30 days, six months to two years in prison for that.
And so a lot of it is the narrative, and it’s also ignorance about the political economy that’s created around these systems as well. And we see that at the border as well in terms of militarization: Who are the contractors, who are the people who are making money off of more border militarization, off of more prisons being at the border?
And the US—really, again, the Biden administration has completely followed Trump’s path in creating these conditions, pushing more militarization, pushing for these policies that make the conditions on the Mexican side of the border that much worse.
JJ: I want to actually pull this to a different point, because I feel like media segregate a lot of issues, and border issues are one thing, but then there’s a whole separate section of the paper that talks about the global economy, right? And that’s a whole other thing.
So corporate media will report every day, with a straight face, how Walmart or whatever, oh, just naturally they’re getting their labor in Bangladesh, and just naturally they’re stashing their profits offshore, you know, to skip out on U.S. taxes, because transnational corporations do what they got to do.
And the idea that capital need observe no borders, but humans, or, you know, labor, should actually die trying to cross them—I mean, that’s a square peg in a round hole, even at the level of so-called economic theory. But this discordant, lopsided vision holds sway in news media as if it were economic dogma.
SS: Absolutely. And NAFTA is the perfect example of what you’re talking about, where, now, borders were open for capital, borders were open for companies, borders were open for trade. But that was also the moment that the Clinton administration put in a “prevention through deterrence” approach to the border, which made it that much more difficult for people to come.
And one of the things that happened is immigration, in the minds of the U.S. media, is a question of crime and safety, when, in fact, it’s really a question of labor, migration and family relationships.
And so instead, all of these “tough on crime,” “war on drugs”—of course, now the border is the site of the fentanyl crisis, when, in fact, the opioid crisis is really a public health question….
And so these are the kinds of narratives that are put forth, the idea that capitalism is fine. But the conditions that the U.S. has created, because of U.S.-backed wars in other parts of the world, U.S. empire, and also globalization, are not things we’re supposed to actually consider—and climate catastrophe, for that matter—are not things we’re supposed to consider when they’re putting in these policies at the border.
JJ: And, you know, we’ll take this up in the future, but I do want to tell folks that activists and advocates and workers are already doing international work, or are already doing cross border work.
We recognize that workers are workers wherever they are, people are people wherever they are. It’s just that that transnational work is not necessarily acknowledged by news media, and so people might not be aware that it’s happening, but it’s happening.
SS: Absolutely. And especially at the border, this is where it’s happening, and I think many communities are in conversation with each other, trying to figure out how to support migrants really struggling.
It’s a really challenging situation. And there is a lot of opportunity to figure this out. And, again, as the Mexican government has grown its detention system, there’s also the International Detention Coalition that has offices in Mexico City, and has also been working on this, and we’ve been in communication with them.
And in so many ways, our ability to address these issues, it can’t just be this insular U.S. focus. It really needs to be a global conversation to prevent future deaths.
JJ: We’ve been speaking with Silky Shah, executive director at Detention Watch Network. They’re online right where you’d look, at DetentionWatchNetwork.org. Silky Shah, thank you so much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.
SS: Thanks so much for having me.