Looking back on the disaster, the one thing I think we can all agree on is that Jared Polis made a large mistake  — leading to a very public embarrassment — in chartering buses to take some of the unexpected overflow of migrants in Denver and transporting many of them to New York and Chicago.

This is hardly an easy issue, of course, which continues to grow worse as Congress fails to act on immigration reform. And then there’s the controversial issue of Title 42, an obscure rule which has been used — inappropriately in my view, but we’ll see what the Supreme Court has to say — to keep asylum seekers from legally entering the United States. 

The result has been a large increase in Venezuelans and Central American migrants coming over the Mexican border illegally, with more of them ending up in Denver than Denver can handle, bringing the border issue directly to our collective doorstep.

But the difficult issue didn’t have to be quite this hard for Polis, who maybe wants to run for president someday, but clearly needs some remedial work on political optics. Unless the mayors of New York and Chicago were on board with the busing project — and clearly they weren’t — it’s hard to see how Polis missed the fact that shipping hundreds of migrants, even if they were willing migrants, to those cities would likely blow up in his face.

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When the mayors objected to his transporting more migrants to their already overtaxed cities, Polis was forced to back down and stop the buses cold. 

Along the way, Polis, a Democrat, allowed himself to be compared, and not in a good way, to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, two likely Republican presidential aspirants, who have been one-upping each other on how to “own the libs” by using migrants as, well, props.

As you’ll recall, DeSantis chartered planes to pick up migrants from Texas — because there apparently weren’t any in Florida — and drop them off, without warning, in the liberal redoubt of Martha’s Vineyard. There have been accusations made since then that the migrants were tricked by a Florida representative into getting onto the planes. And while the optics may have looked good in MAGA world, I have noticed that DeSantis hasn’t made any campaign stops in Cape Cod.

More recently, Abbott sent buses of migrants, some of them dressed in flip-flops and T-shirts, who eventually would be dropped off in front of Vice President Kamala Harris’ District of Columbia residence on a freezing Christmas Eve. Again, it was probably a big hit in MAGA world, but for most of the rest of us, it seemed like a move that would make the Grinch blanch.

Obviously Polis has not welcomed the DeSantis-Abbott comparisons, so the question is: Just what was he trying to accomplish?

In Polis’ words, he was trying to do the right thing in helping the migrants on their way to their ultimate destinations, where a relative or a friend might be waiting to offer help. By the governor’s count, as many as 70% of the 4,200 or so migrants who have come to Denver since early December — mostly from Venezuela by way of El Paso, Texas — have said that Denver was not their hoped-for final destination. 

And when Polis, who pledged $5 million in state aid to feed and house the new arrivals, visited migrants on Christmas Day, he decided the state would take over the busing operation, which was, in fact, nothing like those buses coming from Texas. There were translators on board, and there were services waiting.

“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,” Polis told the Sun’s Jennifer Brown. “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.”

For Denver, the situation had reached a crisis point. The city didn’t have the resources — either in terms of available shelter for the constant flow of migrants or in terms of staff to handle them — and was desperate. When asking for help from other Colorado districts in sheltering the migrants, let’s just say, as one official told me, the spirit of Christmas was found somewhat wanting. One county apparently did take in 50 migrants but only on the condition that Denver officials agreed not to publicize the fact.

Denver, meanwhile, spent nearly $500,000 in December on bus tickets — yes, one-way bus tickets — for 1,900 migrants who said they wished to leave Denver and head somewhere else. That somewhere else, according to city officials, included 399 migrants to Chicago, 345 to New York City, 122 to Atlanta, 95 each to Miami and Orlando, and 68 to Dallas.

That was presumably good news for DeSantis, who wouldn’t have to fly to Texas if he needed to find more migrants to drop off in progressive havens. But as for Polis, he may have noted that only 744 of the 1,900 chose tickets to New York or Chicago. So it just might be that at least some who took Polis’ chartered buses heading to Chicago or New York weren’t necessarily tied to either one, but were simply looking for a better way station.

At least that’s what the mayors of the two cities have quite emphatically stated. It’s also apparent that Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and New York City Mayor Eric Adams told as much to Denver Mayor Michael Hancock.

Additionally, In a joint letter to Polis, the mayors wrote, “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.

“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.”

It’s strange that we’re having this argument when America, and especially American cities, are having so much trouble filling jobs that immigrants have historically filled. You tell me, is there a restaurant in Denver that isn’t desperately looking for staff? You think some of those migrants would be happy to work there? I was told that some of those in the shelters had tried to volunteer to help Denver clear its streets of snow.

As of today, there are about 800 migrants in Denver shelters, and the numbers coming to town have slowed. But don’t be surprised if the numbers grow again, particularly given that no one knows the fate of Title 42, which will soon get a full Supreme Court hearing.

If there’s anything good to come of Polis’ ill-fated bus chartering business, it’s that watching prominent Democratic mayors in battle over migrants with a prominent Democratic governor has gotten the full attention of a Democratic president, who, presumably, will try to find some way for that not to happen again.

Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow. Sign up for Mike’s newsletter.

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