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An Influx of Migrants Strains Denver’s Welcoming Reputation

When a wave of migrants suddenly began arriving from the southern border this past month, this city mobilized emergency shelters where the newcomers, referred to as “guests,” are provided food and clothing and are offered bus tickets to other destinations.

But after receiving more than 4,000 migrants since Dec. 9, Denver’s welcoming posture is showing signs of wearing thin.

The city began telling migrants this past week that they could stay no more than 14 days in shelters, some of which it is planning to close. Over the weekend, state-funded charter busing to New York and Chicago, described by Gov. Jared Polis (D) as a “humane” operation to help migrants go where they wanted, ended following backlash from those cities’ Democratic mayors.

Denver officials insist that none of the 1,112 migrants being sheltered as of Monday will be thrown out on the city’s ice-covered sidewalks in two weeks, though it is unclear who will step up to house a stream of arrivals that has slowed but remains steady. But Denver Mayor Michael Hancock (D) said his city, which limited cooperation with federal immigration authorities in 2017, cannot indefinitely tie up its recreation centers and staff to cope with a national problem.

“I think we all are proud of the moniker and the value that we carry as a welcoming city,” Hancock said in an interview Tuesday, adding that officials are working with the nonprofits and faith groups on longer-term solutions. But, he said, “we all have limitations.”

The Mile-High City, 640 miles from the border, was stunned last month to find itself in the middle of the national immigration crisis. An unprecedented surge of migrants crossing the border had for months been straining cities such as El Paso, D.C. and New York. But busloads of migrants coming on what Denver officials said was their own initiative — rather than on buses sent north by the Republican governors of Texas or Arizona — served as a wake-up call that the crisis may be spreading.

The arrivals set off a smaller version of the massive responses underway in other cities. New York City, which has received more than 36,000 migrants since this past spring, has set up 60 emergency shelters and expects to spend as much as $1 billion assisting migrants this year. In September, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser declared a public emergency, allocating $10 million to create an Office of Migrant Services to coordinate temporary shelter, meals and medical support.

Denver’s Hancock declared an emergency on Dec. 15 as a migrant influx began overwhelming what was then one emergency shelter. The city partnered with nonprofit agencies to create additional shelters at recreation centers and hotels, the latter of which have housed about 430 families. City employees were deployed to help manage the flow. Coordinators distributed fliers at bus stations and stops, directing migrants to a downtown reception center that assigns temporary housing.

The state set aside $5 million to fund the response. Denver says it has spent nearly $1.5 million so far.

Why Denver suddenly became a destination is unclear. Officials say about 70 percent of the arrivals have indicated a desire at intake to travel on to another destination. Others, such as Jesus Leal, say they came after hearing from others in El Paso that Denver was a welcoming refuge where immigration authorities would not bother undocumented immigrants. Over 10 percent of the city’s population is foreign-born, with the majority from Latin America.


Polis announced the busing operation last week, saying it was to assist migrants stranded on their way elsewhere by frigid weather that upended travel nationwide. But the effort infuriated Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot (D) and New York Mayor Eric Adams (D), who, in a joint letter to Polis, demanded he “immediately cease and desist” the busing.


Denver is still buying individual bus tickets for migrants who want to go elsewhere, officials said. {snip}