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Border towns are facing record levels of migration

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Authorities in Mexico have issued arrest warrants for six people in the wake of the deadly fire at an immigration detention facility last week. The blaze, which killed at least 39 migrants, also revealed how border towns in Mexico are struggling with record levels of migration and U.S. policies that push more people back across the border. NPR's Joel Rose has this report.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Even before the fire, tensions were building in Juarez.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

ROSE: Hundreds of migrants rushed the international bridge between Juarez and El Paso a few weeks ago after hearing a false rumor that the port was open. The scene was captured in this video from the news organization La Verdad in Juarez.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

ROSE: "We are human beings," cries a woman carrying a young child on her shoulders. "We get robbed in Mexico," she says. "Help us, please." Juarez and other border cities in Mexico are full of increasingly desperate migrants. The buildup began months ago, long before the deadly fire at a government-run detention facility last week. Thousands of migrants arrive at the border each day, hoping for a chance to cross and seek asylum. But experts say U.S. border policy is also contributing to that buildup as the Biden administration, under political pressure to show it's in control of the border, expels more migrants back to Mexico.

ADAM ISACSON: There's this remarkable bottleneck in northern Mexico where people keep coming.

ROSE: Adam Isacson is with the nonprofit Washington Office on Latin America. He says the practice of quickly expelling asylum seekers from Central America back to Mexico began under former President Trump. The Biden administration has continued that policy through the pandemic restrictions known as Title 42 and even expanded it, Isacson says, to include migrants from Venezuela and other countries.

ISACSON: We're talking hundreds of thousands of people a year who end up in Mexico homeless without a way to support themselves and really sort of stuck or stranded.

ROSE: The Biden administration says it's tried to take a more humane approach than its predecessor.

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ALEJANDRO MAYORKAS: When we first took office, we saw tremendous tragedy and trauma all along the border.

ROSE: That's Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas during a visit to the border last month. Mayorkas says the Biden administration wanted to dismantle a squalid migrant camp in Matamoros, Mexico, in a safe and orderly way, so it allowed migrants to use a new app called CBP One to make appointments for interviews at official ports of entry.

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MAYORKAS: And we closed down that camp.

ROSE: Since then, that app has expanded to the entire border. But immigrant advocates say appointments are scarce - about 740 a day for the whole border, and they fill up quickly. Meanwhile, more migrants are still arriving, hoping for a chance to seek asylum when the Title 42 restrictions end, which is currently set for May.

JUAN FIERRO: (Speaking Spanish).

ROSE: What we are seeing is that more people are arriving every day, says Pastor Juan Fierro.

FIERRO: (Speaking Spanish).

ROSE: Fierro runs a migrant shelter in Juarez known as the Good Samaritan. It's grown over the years, expanding to keep up with the growing demand. Fierro says dozens of other shelters have opened in Juarez, too. Still, the city can't keep up. It's overflowing with migrants, he says, hoping to land one of those coveted appointments through the CBP One app.

FIERRO: (Speaking Spanish).

ROSE: "The number of people arriving at the border is much larger than the number of appointments they give," Fierro says.

FIERRO: (Non-English language spoken).

ROSE: "It's not the app itself," he says. "It's the policy, the number of people who are allowed entry into the U.S. If that's not changed," Fierro says, "we will continue to have this situation all along the border." Joel Rose, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.