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Cots set up in an emergency shelter for people arriving from the southern U.S. border, set up at a Denver recreation center, Dec. 13, 2022. (Kevin J. Beaty, Denverite)

A surge of migrants arriving in Denver throughout the past month has not only pushed city resources to the brink but catapulted Gov. Jared Polis into an ugly political battle that has governors and mayors pointing fingers about who should take responsibility for immigrants crossing the southern border.

Since the migrants began arriving by the busload last month, Denver outreach workers have been buying tickets for those trying to reach family or friends in other states, one person at a time.

But Polis’ announcement this week that the state would take over those operations, using charter buses to send migrants to cities including New York City and Chicago, set off a national furor. New York Mayor Eric Adams, a fellow Democrat, criticized the move and headlines proclaimed that now even a Democrat was pawning off unwanted migrants. 

Colorado’s policy is nothing like that of GOP governors, Polis said Wednesday in an interview with The Sun. 

“It’s really night and day,” he said. “It’s always frustrating when you get caught up in a national sensational narrative. I understand this is a national issue and the federal government needs to act, but I think what we very thoughtfully asked ourselves in Colorado is how can we help folks who have been through a long journey.”

Polis, who visited migrants in Denver on Christmas Day, said almost everyone he met was from Venezuela, an “oppressive, socialist regime,” and that many had been traveling three or four months already, trying to get to friends or relatives in specific cities.

Colorado is not forcing people to leave and extended invitations to everyone to stay, he said. “It’s obviously entirely different than any governor that is sending people to places they don’t want to go to get them out of their area,” he said. “We are respecting the agency and the desires of migrants who are passing through Colorado. We want to help them reach their final destination, wherever that is.”

The city from the start was trying to help migrants get to their destination, but a crippling snowstorm in the eastern half of the country and the meltdown of Southwest Airlines caused a backlog, the governor said. Those hoping to reach California got out of Denver, but people struggled to head east. 

“Everybody was scrambling to get every single available bus seat to get where they were going,” Polis said. 

So Polis pledged $5 million in funds from the state to help with the migrant situation, including sending people on chartered buses to various cities across the country. More than 100 migrants left on buses to other states Tuesday, travel arranged and funded by Colorado.

Since Dec. 9, more than 3,600 migrants have arrived in Denver after crossing into the United States at the southern border, most of them from Central and South America. The unprecedented influx has severely stretched city resources, already costing Denver more than $1.4 million. 

The city so far is seeking $2.5 million of the $5 million from the state, which Polis said will help provide a humane response for those arriving at the pace of more than 100 people per day. About 70% of the migrants who’ve come to Denver in the past month are trying to reach other cities, the governor estimated. The state funding is coming from the Department of Local Affairs and the Department of Public Safety, state officials said.

This image provided by WJLA shows migrant families as they get on a bus to transport them from near the vice president’s residence to an area church after they arrived in Washington, Saturday, Dec. 24, 2022. (WJLA via AP)

The funding will go toward intake, processing and transportation coordination to “help migrants reach their desired final destination.” 

The migrant busing controversy has been ongoing for months. Texas Gov. Greg Abbot, a Republican, sent thousands of migrants to Chicago, Washington, D.C., and New York during the spring and summer. And on Christmas Eve, two buses dropped off about 100 migrants outside the home of Vice President Kamala Harris in Washington. The White House blamed the Texas governor, who said he was fed up with federal immigration policy.

In September, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, also a Republican, spent state funds to round up about 50 migrants in Texas and fly them to the island of Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts, calling it a relocation program. 

The number of immigrants crossing the southern border has reached higher levels in recent weeks partly because a policy set during the Trump administration was set to expire in December. That border policy, called Title 42, allows the United States to quickly expel some migrants without allowing them to make an asylum claim. But the policy did not expire and instead was kept in place last week by the U.S. Supreme Court. 

There is no indication that Texas or any other state sent the migrants to Colorado. Instead, migrants have organized rides on their own or through nonprofits along the border to travel to Colorado. Word that Denver has warm shelters lined with cots has spread via social media and word of mouth, city officials said. 

Polis requests quick federal response

Polis said he wants swift action from Congress and the White House on border security and immigration policy. For one, he wants the 30% or so of recent migrants who want to make a home in Colorado to get work permits in short order. 

“We have a worker shortage in our state,” he said. “We have actually two job openings for every unemployed person. We would love to be able for them to be able to work, and they would love to be able to work.” 

The governor said he also is requesting federal financial assistance and better border security. 

“If we’re going to be helping integrate and absorb migrants, we should receive commensurate funding from the federal government,” he said. “And so should other cities and states that are the final destinations of migrants from Venezuela and other countries.” 

Migrants are not “swayed” or coerced to leave Colorado, he said. “They’re not being sent. They’ve been trying to get to another city that they want to get to for months. We don’t want to trap them or imprison them in our state.” 

More than $1.4 million spent so far

A line forms at Denver’s emergency shelters for the breakfast, lunch and dinner that arrive each day, meals that are sometimes donated by nonprofits or restaurants, but mostly paid for by the city. 

The thousands of migrants who’ve arrived in Denver in the past month wait their turn for locker room showers, and to speak in Spanish to outreach workers who can help them seek housing or travel to relatives in other cities. 

When the recreation center gyms became so crowded that cots would no longer fit, the city put mats on the floor. Families traveling together are put up in motel rooms, since an emergency shelter packed with cots and mats is no place for children. 

Within a couple of weeks, Denver has hired more than 100 workers and announced Wednesday that it is seeking 100 more. Teenagers who were checking rec center cards are now helping run three emergency shelters. Workers from every city department are pitching in, putting in extra hours to cover overnight shifts or temporarily transferring from their regular jobs to work in emergency operations. 

“Every single staff person in the city and county of Denver has been reached out to multiple times for help,” said Jill Lis, who normally handles communications regarding special events like the Colorado Avalanche celebratory parade or city elections. Now, she’s working every day of the week on a team that provides information in Spanish to migrants who have filled the city’s emergency shelters or found warm beds at churches and other shelters.

The city has spent $1.44 million so far, including on hotel rooms, cots, cot covers, blankets, food, staffing, cleaning supplies and toiletries. 

A small busload of people arrive at an emergency shelter for migrants from the southern U.S. border set up at a Denver recreation center on Dec. 13, 2022. (Kevin J. Beaty, Denverite)

At this point, city leaders are basically begging for assistance. “We continue to call on the federal government, private businesses and area nonprofits to assist,” the city said Wednesday in its daily email update on the situation. “The need for more widespread support from other organizations is greater than ever.” 

The items most needed by migrants staying in the city’s two 24/7 shelters and one overnight shelter are backpacks and medium-sized duffel bags, as well as men’s shoes, sneakers and boots. The city’s website lists drop-off locations and hours. 

“People are arriving without warm clothing and without a bag to put warm clothing in,” Lis said. “Some don’t have closed-toed shoes to wear.” 

The city has outreach workers at Union Station downtown, so when buses of migrants arrive, they are directed to a reception center inside one of the city’s recreation centers. Once there, they are assigned a cot at an overnight shelter or set up with a hotel room. They are also tested for COVID-19 and other communicable diseases, Lis said. 

As they check in, many people are explaining that they are trying to reach relatives in other states, she said. 

“That’s where we start to ask folks about whether they are trying to connect with a family member, whether that’s in Denver or beyond,” Lis said. “That effort has now been moved to the state.”

City officials have allowed one media walk-through of a recreation center shelter in the last month. They are asking the media not to disclose the locations of the shelters in order to protect the privacy and safety of the migrants, who are at the center of a hot-button political controversy over border security.

In the early days of the influx, most of the migrants were from Venezuela, a country in political turmoil. At this point, however, the migrants are coming from various countries in Central and South America, Lis said. 

And the tide has not let up: about 100 migrants poured into the city from Tuesday to Thursday this week. 

People arrive at an emergency shelter for migrants from the southern U.S. border set up at a Denver rec center. Dec. 13, 2022. (Kevin J. Beaty, Denverite)

About 1,000 of them are sleeping in the city’s emergency shelters and more than 800 are in shelters set up by churches or other nonprofits. 

While the city is grateful that other organizations have stepped up to help, that, too, has created work for the city. City officials have to visit the shelter space to make sure it’s a good fit, and the Denver Fire Department has to perform an inspection. 

The emergency response has been day to day, Lis said. “It’s a very quick response. A lot of things we have been doing just to get through this day.” 

“All the buses are arriving at the same time”

Some Colorado immigrant advocates supported the governor’s plan to help migrants travel to other cities. 

Laura Lunn, an attorney with the Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network, said the policy is humane. “Put yourself in the place of someone who had to leave everything they know behind … and then arrive to a place where you don’t fully understand what is going on,” she said. “People have been promised things that can’t actually be delivered. They are confused and they need help.” 

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The network, where Lunn is director of advocacy and litigation, helps migrants seek asylum so they can remain in the country, a process that can take months or years, depending on the individual circumstances. Lunn said she does not yet have clients who have arrived in the recent influx because their first priorities are housing and transportation. 

“It’s too soon for them to be worrying about it,” she said. 

“We are welcoming asylum-seekers each and every day. This is an anomaly where all the buses are arriving at the same time.” 

Dave Neuhausel, a pastor at Denver Community Church and leader of a church justice initiative called Project Renew, estimated that about half of immigrants the church has sheltered over the years are trying to get someplace else. In December, the church housed 56 migrants. Often, they have traveled for months by the time they reach Denver, up from El Paso, Texas, and through Albuquerque. They’re exhausted from “hustling” through the shelter system and just want help getting to their final destination, the pastor said.

“They have a family or a friend who has a better situation for them,” Neuhausel said. “I have never had an experience of anyone at the state or Denver who is trying to pawn off a problem on somewhere else.”

Update: This story was updated Jan. 6 after Denver officials released a corrected count of the number of migrants arriving this week.

Jennifer Brown

Jen is a co-founder and reporter at The Sun, where she writes about mental health, child welfare and social justice issues. Her first journalism job was at The Hungry Horse News in her home state of...