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A small busload of people arrives 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)

Denver officials said Monday they are warning migrants arriving by the busload from the U.S. southern border that they can stay in emergency shelters for no more than 14 days, another sign that the city’s capacity to help is waning. 

Gov. Jared Polis, meanwhile, ended a state-funded operation that was sending migrants who came to Denver from Central and South America via charter buses to other cities. The program ended just four days after it began and after Polis said he had a “productive conversation” with the mayors of Chicago and New York, fellow Democrats who were peeved that Colorado was sending migrants to their cities. 

In a joint letter to Colorado’s governor, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and New York City Mayor Eric Adams said they “respectfully demand that you cease and desist sending migrants” to their cities. The mayors said they had received hundreds of migrants from Colorado since December. That’s in addition to thousands of migrants who have been “inhumanely bused” to those two cities from Texas since spring 2022, the letter said.

“Before the first bus arrived in either of our cities, we informed a Colorado official directly that neither city had any additional room to accommodate any more migrants,” they wrote.

“We have seen your statements in the media that you are simply accommodating the wishes of migrants to come to cities like New York City and Chicago. However, you are sending migrants and families to New York City and Chicago that do not have any ties, family members or community networks to welcome them, and at a time where both cities are at maximum capacity in shelter space and available services.”

Polis told The Sun last week that his busing program was humane, set up after extreme winter storms and the Southwest Airlines meltdown that left travelers stranded across the country created a backlog of migrant travelers trying to reach relatives and friends in other cities. The governor estimated about 70% of migrants, many from politically unstable Venezuela, were trying to reach final destinations other than Colorado. 

Denver was one stop in a three- or four-month journey, but people were stranded here because there were no available bus tickets, Polis said. At first, when migrants began arriving at the pace of more than 100 per day in December, the city was funding the purchase of individual bus tickets to their final destination. 

Migrants wait to cross the US-Mexico border from Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2022. (AP Photo/Christian Chavez)

The state stepped in Jan. 3, saying Colorado would pay for charter buses to other cities. Polis announced Saturday that the program was ending. The governor said he had told the mayor of Chicago that no more buses were scheduled to go there, and that the last bus would head toward New York on Sunday. 

Denver and nonprofits will resume helping migrants get individual bus tickets, he said. 

“Now that nationwide travel has returned to the status quo because the holidays and the impact of weather have normalized transportation pathways, Colorado has been in the process of scaling back this transportation,” the governor said in an emailed news release. “People fleeing violence and oppression in search of a better life for themselves and their families deserve our respect not political games and we are grateful we have been able to assist migrants to reach their final destination. We refuse to keep people against their will if they desire to travel elsewhere.”

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Polis again called for federal immigration reform, including increased border security.

The governor’s spokesman, Conor Cahill, told The Sun on Monday that the governor was continuing to “monitor this evolving situation.” 

“We will not prevent anyone who wants to leave from going to their preferred destination,” he said. 

More than 4,000 migrants from the southern border have arrived in Denver since Dec. 9, prompting the city to set up three emergency shelters by lining recreation centers with mats and cots and bringing in catered meals. 

About 560 migrants slept in city shelters Sunday night, and 582 slept in shelters set up by churches and nonprofits. 

From Sunday to Monday, 73 more migrants arrived in Denver, according to the city’s daily update. The city has spent more than $1.44 million so far, including on hotel rooms, cots, cot covers, blankets, food, staffing, cleaning supplies and toiletries. Polis announced $5 million in state funds is available to cities and nonprofits to help care for the migrants. 

City officials said they began informing migrants at the end of December that, beginning Jan. 9, the 14-day shelter limit would go into effect. Two weeks is considered the right amount of time to rest up from traveling and continue on their journeys or connect with other, non-emergency shelters or housing, they said.

“Living in an emergency shelter should be a very temporary way for folks who’ve made a long journey to get here to stay warm in winter, get connected to resources, and develop a plan to either remain here long-term or travel to their next U.S. destination,” the city said. “This is an opportunity for nonprofits and faith organizations to step up by providing humanitarian aid to these very vulnerable neighbors as well.”

Since last spring, politicians have accused governors of dumping unwanted migrants in other cities, but the controversy has centered on Republicans. 

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, 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.

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...