Denver pivots on migrant crisis: Fewer people offered more support

Denver is overhauling its approach to the migrant crisis after spending millions of dollars, stretching city resources, and receiving backlash from its taxpaying residents.

Denver Mayor Mike Johnston, a Democrat, announced on Wednesday the city will extend its support to illegal immigrants for six months but drastically cut back the number of people it will help to 1,000. 

Migrants rest at a makeshift shelter in Denver on Jan. 6, 2023. (AP Photo/Thomas Peipert)

The major shift in policy, along with revised budget impact projections, follows months of failed attempts by Johnston to get federal aid, as well as pushback on deep cuts to the city’s budget. 

Denver has become one of the country’s migrant crisis epicenters and has helped feed, shelter, and clothe nearly 41,000 migrants since the end of 2022. 

The city, along with Chicago and New York, had been uniformly extending hospitality to all illegal migrants, which often translated to longer shelter stays. However, the cost quickly ballooned and overwhelmed all three cities. 

Denver’s new program will place 1,000 asylum-seekers in apartments for up to six months, providing them job and skill training, as well as food and help with asylum applications. First in line for the program are the 800 people living in the city’s shelters. 

Johnston said the new plan “represents a new moment for Denver” — one that will provide new immigrants, “for the first time, a real path to work and independence.” 

The goal for Denver will be to act as a buffer and offer intensive preparation to a small number of people, helping them apply for a work permit and become legal under federal law. 

“Three months ago, we found ourselves stuck in the same trap, with continuous waves of newcomers, no federal support, [and] challenges for access to work authorization,” Johnston said during a Wednesday news conference. “But we knew that serving our newcomers well could also mean serving the city well.”

Denver Mayor Mike Johnston. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Denver has also sent two employees with Denver Human Services to El Paso to tell newcomers and nonprofit groups that going to Denver will mean a lot of shut doors and far fewer opportunities than in the past. 

“We don’t want a family to come to Denver and think, OK, Denver is offering six weeks of shelter,” said Jon Ewing, a spokesman for Denver Human Services. “We want them to know immediately. This is what the program is now. … We find that it’s best that people start planning ahead of time. It’s just making sure that everyone’s on the same page.”

But not everybody is on board with Denver’s sudden pivot and said the changes betray an ordinance former Mayor Michael Hancock signed in 2017 securing the city as a “sanctuary” for migrants and telling them, “We’ve got your backs.”

Housekeys Action Network added that Denver’s plan will push illegal immigrants, including children, into “dangerous situations” once the city’s help runs out and that they’re “kicked to the streets or lied to about available opportunities in other states.” 

In New York City, most adult migrants are offered 30 days in the city’s shelter system, which is basically old hotels and huge tent dormitories. Longer stays, up to 60 days, are allowed but go mostly to families with children.

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Chicago also started to enforce a 60-day limit on shelter stays starting last month, though there are many exemptions in place. 

Representatives from Chicago and New York have also made the trip to Texas to paint a bleak picture of opportunities for incoming migrants. 

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