The latest influx of migrants who arrived by bus to Denver may have surprised local and state officials, but they weren’t completely unexpected, according to immigration advocates.
Approximately 600 migrants have made their way to Denver over the past several months, according to the city’s emergency operations center, though Colorado was not the final destination for all of them. As of Monday afternoon, 153 migrants were staying in the city’s emergency shelter, 48 in a church-run shelter, 52 had arrived at homeless shelters overnight and 35 were planning to leave the emergency shelter to stay with friends or family.
Where are the migrants coming from and where are they staying?
The bus of about 150 migrants that arrived last week in downtown Denver was not chartered by any organization or sent as a political move. The people arriving had self-funded their way to Denver, said Jennifer Piper, interfaith organizing director for the American Friends Service Committee. Her organization, along with Casa de paz, Colorado Hosting Asylum Network and Denver Community Church are working with the city to shelter migrants in the Denver Welcome Center and to provide resources. Many of the migrants have traveled through El Paso, Texas, and other border towns.
The migrants came into the U.S. from Central and South America, many from Venezuela, to apply for asylum. About half the people who arrived are looking to rejoin family members and may work some day labor jobs to earn money to get to their next stop, Piper said. About 50-100 people are arriving every day in Denver.
Some are coming by bus, some by personal vehicle, either making the choice individually or through loosely organized groups, said city spokesperson Jill Lis.
Why are more migrants making their way to Denver?
The situation in Venezuela has become untenable for many families with ongoing political (including government persecution) and humanitarian crises, and U.S. oil sanctions. People started to flee Venezuela to other South American countries to find food and work, but not every refugee has been able to settle in nearby countries, so some have set their sights on the U.S. Or, some have tried to stay in countries like Mexico, and had to flee again.
Additionally, the Biden administration decided to apply Title 42, a Trump-era policy, to Venezuelans so they aren’t able seek asylum at a port of entry but have to try to get it from outside the U.S. and have a sponsor. Instead, many are forced to find a way to enter into the country without detection — some get stopped at the border, get expelled to Mexico and then make it back into the U.S.
Still, “we’re not seeing folks coming to Denver because there’s more people suddenly coming to the U.S. than there was two weeks ago,” Piper said. The journeys of those arriving in Denver began three or four months ago.
The exact reason the migrants are choosing Denver varies.
“Denver is a very welcoming city. And so that may be something people are hearing and understand and feel like it’s a feasible option for them,” Lis said. “People are coming here in challenging situations and just looking for a safe, welcoming place where they might stop.”
Were the migrants actually unexpected?
“They were unexpected in the sense that, did anyone know they were going to show up that day? No,” Piper said.
However, immigration advocates have been telling government officials since September that this would happen. The root causes of the migration were only getting worse and Colorado isn’t that far from the border. Immigration partners in border towns were telling the Colorado nonprofits that they would have to extend into the interior to help migrants because of the way the administration is approaching asylum.
Border town nonprofits were overwhelmed and reached out to Colorado agencies for help, said Bianey Bermudez, spokesperson for the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition.
The state began seeing an increase in the number of people arriving in Colorado and immigration nonprofits received a request from Annunciation House in El Paso to welcome new migrants, something they had done in 2019. They welcomed some migrants but had to reject another request so they could partner with the city after the most recent influx of migrants.
Piper said they anticipate accepting another bus from Annunciation House in January.
For several months, Colorado advocates met with local and state officials about the crisis who heard their concerns, but before this past week, Piper said city leadership wasn’t sure how many migrants to expect, and top state leadership didn’t take them seriously aside from those working in the Office of New Americans.
A spokesperson for Gov. Jared Polis’ office did not return a request for comment Tuesday afternoon.
Denver is the only major city in the state to proactively make plans to meet the increased number of migrants coming to the area, said Mikayla Ortega, spokesperson for the Denver Office of Emergency Management. City officials got involved after hearing about an increase in migrants from Central and South America and discussing needs with their nonprofit partners, but no one could know exactly how many people to expect, she added.
“We believe in people’s dignity and their rights to shelter, so that’s why this is a huge priority for us,” Ortega said.
Piper expects Colorado will be able to handle more migrants coming through and settling in the state, as has been evidenced by how the state responded to Ukrainian and Afghan refugees. She hopes Denver’s current experience and connection to border town agencies will help Colorado in its next steps.
And she said the staff in Denver’s emergency shelter is working nonstop now that the migrants are here, but that the response shouldn’t only fall on the city.
“We’ll do what we have to do,” Lis said. “And we’ll see how the landscape may evolve over time, but we are a get-it-done city. And so whatever we need to do to make sure that people that end up in our city one way or another are safe and healthy and have what they need.”
Aside from calling on U.S. Congress and the Biden administration to take action, Piper said advocates want the state to work with its nonprofit partners and obtain money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to set up a “midterm” shelter option.
Right now, there are short-term options for emergency shelter. It’s not clear how long people can stay in the city’s shelter — the situation is fluid as more people come in and leave everyday, Ortega said. At the Denver Welcome Center shelter, they can remain for a week. The nonprofits are building a capacity of people to help with more longer-term options to help individuals. But there’s a gap for people who need a place to stay for two to four weeks where they can stay safely, leave their belongings and work to save up some money.
The nonprofits are also accepting volunteers and donations — though Piper recommends being persistent because everyone is busy responding to the immediate needs of the migrants.
The city of Denver has also requested new clothes for adults, sizes small, medium and large, especially in medium for men and women. Winter clothes are also needed, including coats (men’s small and medium and women’s medium), pants (waist size 30-33), socks, underwear, winter apparel and children’s clothes for ages 10 and younger.
An updated list of needs can be found at denver gov.org/OEM.
Donations to get people housed can be directed to the Colorado Hosting Asylum Network and Project Renew, and people can sign up to volunteer with the Denver Welcome Center.
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