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Various groups of people with blankets around them for warmth
Migrants wait to cross the US-Mexico border from Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2022. (Christian Chavez, AP Photo)

Black ropes create a winding line that has taken over the airy lobby of a city building. Signs in Spanish tell the arriving migrants, almost all of them from Venezuela, where to stand:

“Parejas,” or couples, says one line. 

“Hombres solteros que se quedan en Denver,” or single men staying in Denver, says another. 

Four men with tired eyes sit on a bench beyond the processing line next to backpacks holding everything they carried on the monthslong journey from their home country, which is in the midst of a humanitarian crisis. As they wait for word about where they will sleep, a Denver worker appears and hands two of them one-way bus tickets.

Fernando, who left Venezuela eight months ago and stopped to work construction in Mexico along the way, receives a ticket to Cleveland, Ohio, where he has a friend. He immediately uses his phone to look up the address of Union Station, where he will board a bus in a few hours. The man sitting next to him, José, gets a ticket on a bus to Chicago that departs in two days. When another city worker announces in Spanish that there is a shuttle arriving to take people to a motel for the night, José heads for the line. 

Two young parents, their faces weary as they try to entertain their 1-year-old son, are settled into folding chairs. They want to stay in Denver, so they wait to find out where they’ve been assigned temporary shelter. 

More than 10,150 migrants have arrived in Denver since December, with a mid-May crush at a pace of more than 100 people per day. About one-fourth want to stay in Colorado, while the rest are on their way to other cities, most commonly Chicago and New York, according to city officials who gave The Colorado Sun a tour of the processing center. 

Denver earlier this month set up an emergency processing center on the Auraria Campus downtown, where hundreds of migrants waited in line to sign up for shelter beds and bus tickets and some camped out in a nearby parking garage. Then Denver moved its temporary processing center to a city building and asked reporters to keep the location secret, citing safety concerns. Processing operations are expected to move to yet another location this week to make room for Denver’s runoff election for its next mayor. 

The city has spent $16.6 million since the first waves of Venezuelan migrants began arriving around Christmastime on food, shelter, bus tickets and staff hours. The state has spent more $10.8 million, including reimbursing the city for $2.5 million of its costs. 

A sign reads “Familias con niños mas de 10 años,” or families with children over 10 years old who will travel elsewhere, at an undisclosed city building May 18, 2023, in Denver. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Workers from other city departments have been reassigned to the emergency operations, while volunteers have brought food and clothing, and multiple churches have provided housing. 

The city spending includes $682,237 for 1,903 bus tickets purchased just in May. The city has purchased 4,679 bus tickets since January, totalling $1.45 million. This doesn’t include tickets purchased in December, or the state expense for chartering several buses at the end of 2022 to send migrants to Chicago, New York and elsewhere.

“We have heard a couple times recently of people that had an intention to go to Florida, and because of the political nature of Florida and maybe the possibility of being less welcome there, they’re making a different choice to go to a different city,” city spokeswoman Jill Lis said.

Denver so far has received only $909,000 from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s emergency food and shelter program, Lis said. The expense is a strain on city resources, prompting Mayor Michael Hancock and Gov. Jared Polis to ask for additional assistance from the federal government.

The migrant situation also has stressed relations between states, including when the mayors of Chicago and New York criticized Colorado in December for busing Venezuelans to their cities. Last week, Hancock accused Texas Gov. Greg Abbott of sending a busload of 40 migrants to Denver. The Denver mayor suggested he would send the Texas governor a bill for his “latest stunt” and “because of his failure at managing his own state.” 

“What is happening at the border, and what is showing up at the doorsteps of cities across the country, is a humanitarian crisis,” Hancock said in an emailed statement. “What none of us need is more political theater and partisan gamesmanship pitting jurisdictions against each other and exacerbating this situation instead of advocating for real solutions to this challenge.” 

The number of immigrants crossing the southern border and arriving in Colorado surged in December ahead of an expected end to a policy set during the Trump administration. That border policy, called Title 42 and rooted in the COVID pandemic, allowed the United States to quickly send back some migrants without allowing them to make an asylum claim. The policy did not expire in December as expected, but ended this month as the federal public health emergency related to COVID officially ended. 

The number of immigrants arriving from Venezuela, which is in economic and political turmoil, slowed through the spring but rose sharply again this month. The lines were so long at the Denver processing center in mid-May that people were sent to overflow spaces in the upper floors of the city building. 

Most of the migrants are arriving at Denver Union Station on buses from Texas. Workers from nonprofits meet them and direct them to the city’s processing center. Tables in the city building hold water and snacks, plus bags for kids filled with coloring books and bubbles. 

Migrants who did not have an “asylum number,” meaning they did not stop at immigration at the border, are not receiving beds in Denver’s five emergency shelters, Lis said. The city will still buy them one-way bus tickets, however. And they are welcome to seek space in a nonprofit homeless shelter. Those with asylum numbers are allowed to stay in a city-run shelter for up to 30 days, after which they might find beds through churches and nonprofits. 

“For the most part, folks that have gotten to this point have their asylum number,” Lis said. 

A harrowing journey through the jungle, being assaulted on a Mexican train

Eleonora and Lewis, a married couple who for safety reasons did not want to give their last name, left their home in the Zulia region of Venezuela nearly three years ago. Eleonora was a hairstylist and an industrial safety medic, and Lewis was a fisherman. Their region was so impoverished, they struggled to survive.

“Venezuela’s minimum wage is $20 (per month), but two pounds of rice costs $4. A pound of meat at $7,” Lewis said as the couple waited in the city’s processing center last week to find out their assignment for temporary shelter. They chose to come to Denver because they have friends here, but Eleonora left her three children behind in South America because she feared the journey was too dangerous.

After leaving their country, the couple lived for two years in the coastal city of Guayaquil, Ecuador. Then in September, they made their first attempt to cross the U.S. border. 

Lewis and Eleonora, who are married, wait in a processing center in Denver to find out their assignment for temporary shelter May 18, 2023. The couple left their home in Venezuela nearly three years ago, struggling to survive amid poverty in their region. Last fall, they made their first attempt to cross the U.S. border from Ecuador. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

They traveled by bus to Colombia. In Necoclí, a northern beach city, they caught a boat that took them to the Darién Gap, a rainforest that connects Colombia to Panama. From there, they walked for three and a half days. “We saw dead people, drowned people who were carried away by the river,” said Eleonora, wearing new plastic flip-flops and sweats dotted with Mickey Mouse ears. “People who had gone into cardiac arrest. We slept in tents where the night caught us.” 

The couple crossed the Darién with a group of about 50 people, paying $300 for a guide through the rainforest. It was the most harrowing part of their journey. “There are people who come out of the jungle with trauma. One lady from Guatemala was kind of traumatized because she had been raped,” Eleonora said. “When we got to Monterrey she saw her rapists and ran away,” Lewis added.

After making it through the jungle, they arrived in Panama and went to a United Nations office. Then it was on to Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Honduras, where their journey was halted by U.S. immigration policy. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security on Oct. 12 announced an immigration policy that meant Venezuelan citizens who tried to enter the United States illegally would be sent back to Mexico immediately.

The couple returned to Costa Rica, where they spent about a month working. They crossed into Mexico, where they boarded a free train from Mexico City to Monterrey. They were assaulted on the train and other migrants were kidnapped, they said. A bus brought them from Monterrey to the U.S. border in Texas. 

At the border, the couple crossed the river and turned themselves in to the border patrol, they said. At the immigration department, migrants were separated by gender. Lewis was held in a room for a day, while Eleonora was held for three days. 

“Inside they take away your phone. They take away everything,” Lewis said. “They lock you in a cell and you don’t know if it’s day or night. They give you an apple, a loaf of bread and that’s it.”

“You do ask for patience in those moments,” Eleonora said. “They take away people’s shoelaces. There are people who want to hang themselves.”

The couple has upcoming hearing dates as part of the process to seek asylum. Even as they described their journey, they paused to smile and laugh, relieved to be sitting in the United States.

“Are we calm? We are happy,” Lewis said. 

“Because of the treatment, the way people talk to you,” added Eleonora. “On the other side of the border, that’s another thing. In Mexico, the cops take everything from you. At the checkpoints they extort you. If they see that you don’t have money, they take your things. Everything is a business with the migrant.”  

The couple said they chose not to pay a “coyote,” a guide who charges upward of $10,000 to take people to the border. Instead, they paid their way and joined groups they met along the way with the promise of paying them back later. “We’re here now,” Lewis said. “In debt but we’re here.”

They hoped to receive temporary housing and find jobs in Denver, whatever kind they can find, they said. 

Two single men heading toward the Midwest

Fernando and José, both in their 20s, met on the journey to the border. “Some meet on the train, others in the jungle,” said José, who said he saw dead children on his crossing through the Darién Gap during his two months traveling to the United States. The gap, which connects Central and South America, is one of the most dangerous migration routes in the world, a thick rainforest with steep mountains. 

“If you bring money it takes you three weeks,” José said while waiting on a bench for his bus ticket to Chicago. “In my case, I had to walk a lot. I had to ask for help for the passage. I had to work in construction for a week in Costa Rica, which allowed me to get to Guatemala. There I worked another week and I was able to get to Mexico.” 

José, who traveled for months from Venezuela, stopped in Denver for a few days while waiting for a bus to Chicago. (Manuel Novik, The Colorado Sun)

Both men, who expect they will work in construction jobs in Chicago and Cleveland, have applied for asylum and received hearing dates in July. The men did not want their last names published because they feared retaliation from the Venezuelan government or that something they said could affect their claims for asylum.  

Fernando left Venezuela at the end of September and arrived in January in Juarez, Mexico, where he spent four months working in construction. “In Juarez they treated me well,” he said. “The only problem I had was with the immigration department. If they see you on the streets they ask you for money.” 

The two men also took the free train from Mexico City to Monterrey, a trip more than 500 miles. Along the way, mafia members got on the train to assault and kidnap migrants, which is why migrants try to form large groups before boarding the train so they can protect each other, the men said.

“Many of us made it,” José said, “but others didn’t.” 

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...