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With the city of Denver's skyline as a backdrop, motorists head eastbound along Highwy 285 after the first of a pair of winter storms swept over the intermountain West Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2022, in Lakewood, Colo. Forecasters predict that the frigid temperatures will persist with periods of light snow through the work week. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock on Thursday issued an emergency declaration, hoping to head off a “local humanitarian crisis” as hundreds of migrants, mostly from Central and South America, have converged downtown in recent months, straining the city’s ability to care for them and reunify them with loved ones.

The announcement comes as 247 more migrants have arrived in Denver since Monday, overwhelming an emergency shelter at a city recreational center and causing the city to open another.  

“Let me be frank: This influx of migrants, the unanticipated nature of their arrival, and our current space and staffing challenges have put an immense strain on city resources, to the level where they’re on the verge of reaching a breaking point at this time,” Hancock said.

“What I don’t want to see is a local humanitarian crisis of unsheltered migrants on our hands because of a lack of resources,” he said.

Denver Mayor Michael B. Hancock speaks at a ribbon-cutting ceremony to celebrate completion of Phase I of the Great Hall Project. Denver International Airport completed Phase I of the Great Hall Project at Jeppesen Terminal on October 27, 2021. Renovations to levels 5 and 6 include new ticketing, check-in, and automated self-bag-drop kiosks for Southwest Airlines, United Airlines, and eventually Frontier Airlines. (Jeremy Sparig, Special to the Colorado Sun)

Many of the migrants had gathered in communities along the Mexico border, mainly in El Paso, Texas, the mayor said, adding that nongovernmental organizations at the border are encouraging migrants to go elsewhere, including to Denver. 

The mayor spoke Thursday afternoon at the Emergency Operations Center, in the basement of the City and County Building, at 1437 Bannock St. 

City employees and other local agencies are working around the clock to support migrants and asylum seekers, Hancock said. Denver Health is providing mobile medical services to migrants who need it, local churches are offering beds space and volunteers to help provide shelter and nonprofits are collecting donations for migrant families. Hundreds of Denver residents are donating clothing and other supplies, the mayor said.

The emergency declaration will allow the city to free up and secure resources, and streamline certain processes, including funding and sheltering options, to help support migrants while they’re in Denver, as officials work to reunify them with friends and family and get them to their final destinations.

The city has spent more than $800,000 since it started the emergency operations center to accommodate new arrivals. That cost includes payment to people working long hours at local shelters and other centers, and costs for food, clothing, security, sheltering and transportation to reunification, Hancock said.

The city is using money from its general fund and it is seeking federal reimbursement to help cover the costs, officials have said. 

Approximately 600 migrants have arrived in Denver over the past several months, including nearly 400 who came within the past couple of weeks, prompting the opening of the two emergency shelters.  

In addition to the second emergency shelter, Denver has designated a third recreation center to serve as a reception center for newly arriving migrants, where they can access emergency shelter and/or receive reunification assistance.

As of Wednesday, 271 migrants were being housed at the city’s emergency shelters, 48 had been relocated to a church-run shelter and 52 new arrivals spent the night at local homeless shelters. Another 35 people left the city’s emergency shelter with plans to reunite with loved ones, the city said Wednesday in a news release. 

The city opened its first emergency shelter for migrants at a recreation center on Dec. 6. 

Denver is a so-called sanctuary city and county, meaning it doesn’t cooperate with federal immigration officials in attempts to deport residents living in the city without legal documentation.

Denver leaders said they did not know why the city suddenly became a draw for migrants. But Hancock on Thursday said political and economic struggles in countries like Venezuela are driving the current waves of migration.

There had been speculation that the migrants had been sent to Denver by another state’s governor, similar to recent moves by governors in Texas, Florida and Arizona to transport migrants to Democrat-led states, on the claim they should share in the expense of managing the costs of immigration. But Denver leaders said last week they had found no evidence that happened here.

Instead, the city leaders said, some of the 120 migrants who arrived in Denver earlier this month used social media to plan the trip themselves. 

Most are from Central and South America. The group includes young adults in their 20s and 30s and a few children. As many as 90 arrived on a bus, and city officials are still trying to determine where it originated.

The city is arranging transportation for migrants who had planned to stop in Denver but did not intend to make it their final destination, said Mimi Scheuermann, CEO of Denver Human Services. She said Thursday that bad weather has complicated some of those trips.

More assistance is needed to help city leaders ensure migrants’ basic needs are being met to help avoid a humanitarian crisis where hundreds of migrants are displaced within the city.

“Cities are once again having to respond because of the failure of our Congress and our federal government to address a very critical situation,” Hancock said.

“We’ve got to fix this immigration issue. I’m not trying to sound political. But I’m trying to seem pragmatic and practical. This is going to continue to happen and continue to overwhelm cities all over this country until Congress works on fixing this situation,” he added.

MORE: City leaders have established a drop-off location for donated items at Iglesia Ciudad de Dios located at 5255 W. Warren Ave. in Denver. The church will accept donations on Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. 

Hats, gloves, scarves, boots, coats (men’s small and medium and women’s medium), pants (waist 30 to 33), socks, underwear and children’s clothing for kids age 10 and younger are urgently needed.

The city has called on local faith-based groups, nonprofits and private sector organizations to reach out if they’re able to support human service efforts for new migrants arriving. Those interested in getting involved can contact the Emergency Operations Center at donations@denvergov.org.  

Tatiana Flowers

Tatiana Flowers is the equity and general assignment beat reporter for the Colorado Sun. She has covered crime and courts plus education and health in Colorado, Connecticut, Israel and Morocco. In her spare time, she enjoys skiing, Zumba, learning how to...

Delaney Nelson

Delaney Nelson is The Colorado Sun's 2022 Medill School of Journalism Fellow.