Some Colorado communities scramble to help migrants, others ‘do not want to be Denver’ as crisis spreads

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They came by the hundreds, crowding into a fourth-floor room in a nondescript office building in Lakewood — their message loud and earnest.

“We do not want to be Denver,” former Councilwoman Mary Janssen told the gathering. “I live in Lakewood. When did we decide to give away our immigration laws?”

Last week’s hastily arranged meeting in an office park near the Colorado Mills shopping center was the latest convulsion amid an ongoing and unprecedented migrant crisis in neighboring Denver, where nearly 40,000 new arrivals to the city have been processed over the last 13 months at a cost of more than $42 million.

Mary Janssen prepares to speak during an emergency citizens’ meeting to discuss immigration in Lakewood on Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2024. (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post)

The massive surge at the U.S. southern border has forced Colorado communities beyond Denver to respond to the crisis, too, as migrants leave the Mile High City to join family members or seek job opportunities across the state.

Some places have been more welcoming than others.

In Carbondale, dozens of Venezuelan migrants arrived suddenly in town last fall and were given shelter in public buildings after families were found sleeping under a bridge. Fort Collins has welcomed migrants from 32 countries in recent years, prompting its elected leaders to establish an Immigration Legal Fund to help the newcomers with asylum cases, acquiring work permits and handling deportation hearings.

The fund was launched in the summer of 2021 as a $150,000 pilot program, said Leo Escalante, a liaison in Fort Collins’ Neighborhood Services Department. The City Council renewed it through the end of this year with another $500,000 injection.

The Larimer County city of 170,000 has an estimated population of 13,000 immigrants, Escalante said, with 2,300 or so lacking legal status to be here.

“This has to be a shared responsibility to help our immigrant communities among as many communities as possible,” he said.

But not all communities in Colorado see it that way.

In October, the Adams County Health Department held a special meeting to discuss Denver’s decision — later reversed — to house migrants in an Adams County hotel with little warning. The department said any migrant shelters need to meet health and safety standards to minimize the risk of the spread of infectious diseases.

That same month, Douglas County commissioners passed a resolution saying the county would not serve as a “sheltering solution” for migrants from Denver. On Jan. 31, El Paso County followed suit.

“El Paso County will not be designated as a sanctuary county,” county spokeswoman Natalie Sosa told The Denver Post. “We support immigration laws and we believe in the rule of law and will work to keep our community safe by not inviting individuals who are not here legally.”

Closer to Denver, a rumor in late December that migrants would be sent from the city to a Wheat Ridge hotel prompted a group of residents to gather together at an emergency meeting. Denver denied any plans to send migrants to Wheat Ridge, according to a Fox31 report.

As the new year dawned, the Lakewood City Council agreed to talk to Denver about how Colorado’s fifth-largest city could help its neighbor with its migrant challenge. The council will receive a report on those discussions at its meeting Monday, which is expected to draw a large turnout.

“I think it’s obvious, wherever you sit on the political divide on this, that we’re reaching a point where this can’t just be a Denver-only issue,” Lakewood Councilman Roger Low said at a Jan. 8 meeting. “Being a good neighbor means that if you notice that your neighbor is having an emergency you don’t shut the door, you don’t turn out the lights, you don’t just hide under the pillow and hope it’s all going to go away.

“You go out and ask, ‘How can I help?’”

Attendees pack the room door to door during an emergency citizens’ meeting to discuss immigration in Lakewood on Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2024. (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post)

At what cost?

That the migrant influx in Denver has reached a critical level is borne out by the increasingly ardent pleas from Mayor Mike Johnston to the federal government to provide more help. Johnston led a delegation of mayors from New York, Chicago, Houston and Los Angeles to the White House in November to ask for more assistance managing and supporting the newcomers.

The number of arrivals to Denver has risen so significantly in recent months that hundreds of migrants set up tents outside as they time out of the shelters. As of Friday, nearly 3,600 migrants were living in city shelters.

Johnston recently asked city departments and agencies to identify potential budget cuts in response to the ongoing crisis. The mayor on Friday announced the first round of cuts, which add up to $5 million: Denver Motor Vehicle offices will close for a week at a time on a rotating basis, recreation centers will reduce hours and the parks department will slash programming by 25%.

Johnston fears that if the situation continues at this pace in 2024, the city may be forced to cut as much as $180 million — or 10% to 15% — from its annual budget.

Impacts are also being felt in the health sector. UCHealth said last week it needed more money to respond to the migrant influx, noting that its University of Colorado Hospital provided $10 million in uncompensated care in just three months. Dr. Richard Zane, UCHealth’s chief innovation officer, told The Post those costs going forward were “not sustainable.”

In January, Denver Health announced that 8,000 migrants who came to Colorado from Central America in 2023 made about 20,000 visits to the health system, for needs including dental emergencies, mental health counseling and childbirth.

That’s not a situation El Paso County wants to face.

“Our observation of cities such as Denver and Chicago, which have adopted such policies, reveals a clear pattern — the overwhelming strain on local resources, the overextension of services and the substantial financial burden on their budgets, and a conflicting message that our laws don’t matter,” said Sosa, the county spokeswoman.

The conservative county, home to Colorado Springs, further urged Denver to “reconsider its status as a sanctuary city for the sake of those who are being lured under false pretenses, and neighboring cities and counties, like ours, whose residents will likely feel the burden as this emergency spills over into our boundaries.”

The term sanctuary city generally refers to municipalities that refuse to cooperate with immigration authorities. While Denver has never declared itself as such, it was called out by name by the Trump administration in 2017 as a sanctuary city when the administration was considering withholding federal funds to cities that didn’t toe the line on immigration enforcement.

Colorado Springs received its first busload of 21 migrants earlier this month, prompting Mayor Yemi Mobolade to take to Facebook to pledge to stay ahead of the issue and prevent it from spiraling out of control. He declined to comment for this story.

“It’s also important that you know it’s my duty to care for our residents first,” Mobolade, himself an immigrant from Nigeria, said in his address. “Not that the migrants coming through the southern border do not matter, but I signed up to be a mayor of Colorado Springs residents.”

So-called sanctuary policies, said Douglas County Commissioner Abe Laydon, do more harm than good.

“Summoning tens of thousands of migrants to a cold-weather climate without a plan is not compassionate,” he said.

While Denver may appear immigrant-friendly to those crossing the border, it has been Texas Gov. Greg Abbott who has sent busloads of migrants to Denver from the border, inviting condemnation from Johnston and other city officials. Abbott counters that he’s just sharing the cost of supporting migrants with cities — largely led by Democratic mayors — that have loudly embraced immigrants.

Laydon also worries about the impact thousands of new people will have on Colorado’s notorious housing shortage, which has helped push up the average price of a single-family home in metro Denver to $625,000. The average rent for an apartment in and around Denver came in at $1,870 in the fourth quarter of last year.

Some school districts in Colorado have started building tiny homes for teachers who simply can’t afford to live where they work.

“They’re competing against people who also can’t afford where they live,” Laydon said of immigrants. “We want to make sure our firefighters, teachers and retail workers can afford to live here.”

But Jennifer Piper, program director for the American Friends Service Committee and an immigrant advocate, said Colorado’s housing challenges have deep roots that long pre-date the most recent wave of migrants to the state. The state’s inflated housing market is caused by many factors beyond migration, she said, including a lack of rent control.

“I intimately understand the fears and anxieties that people feel,” Piper said. “What newcomers are exposing are systemic problems.”

She laid the blame for the issue squarely on the federal government, which has been unable to come up with a cogent immigration policy for decades. Just last week, Senate Republicans scuttled a bipartisan bill designed to reduce the record number of illegal border crossings as posturing for the November presidential election set in.

In the meantime, Piper said immigrants have been routinely and unfairly vilified as criminals and societal burdens when, in fact, they are just trying to escape lives of misery and hopelessness driven by climate change, gang violence and oppressive governments in their home countries.

“No one wants to walk through seven countries and put themselves in the hands of dangerous people if they have any other option,” she said. “For the most part, Colorado in the last 20 years has transformed into a place where the newcomer of yesterday is the business person of today.”

“We can choose to be charitable”

That’s what Yerania Reynoso, program coordinator for immigrant resource nonprofit Mountain Dreamers in Summit County, is hoping will happen for the migrants she serves.

“We focus on schools, translation, housing,” she said.

The organization worked with more than 1,000 migrants last year, up from 300 to 400 in 2022, Reynoso said — a sign of the increase in the number of people headed to Colorado’s mountains in search of work in the broad service sector that underpins the high country’s crucial recreation and tourism industry.

Mountain Dreamers has also doubled its staff to six in just the last couple of years, Reynoso said.

“We have received support, and received donations,” she said.

Just up Interstate 70, in the Roaring Fork Valley, Carbondale has been housing migrants since November. Rob Stein, former Roaring Fork School District superintendent, was asked by the town of 6,500 to head up an effort to find shelter for the 100 or so Venezuelan migrants who arrived just ahead of the ski season.

“We have set up two shelters, each with capacity for 20 people,” he told The Post. “We have also been contracting with the Roaring Fork School District to provide dinners at a local elementary school.”

Fifty to 55 migrants are still in town, Stein said, with most of them working for cash as day laborers. But there are limits to how many new arrivals Carbondale can accommodate, especially given the town’s severe lack of affordable housing.

“The number of migrants who recently arrived in Carbondale, proportionate to the town’s population, is similar to what Denver is seeing. However, scale makes it easier to manage,” he said. “It’s true that we don’t have capacity to accommodate more people, and we will need the county (Garfield) and other municipalities to contribute to the effort if more people arrive.”

Former U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo smiles as he is applauded after speaking during an emergency citizens’ meeting to discuss immigration in Lakewood on Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2024. (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post)

Some of the attendees at the Lakewood meeting last Tuesday felt the burden shouldn’t fall on local governments and taxpayers. Tom Tancredo, the former Colorado congressman known for his hardline stance on illegal immigration when he was in office, told the gathering that “anyone who keeps these borders open is culpable.”

Tolerating, or encouraging, illegal entry into the country, he said, is an affront to those who bothered to follow proper channels to gain residency or citizenship.

“It’s a slap in the face of everyone who has done it the right way,” Tancredo said.

Many migrants arriving in Denver have already turned themselves in to the U.S. Border Patrol and are seeking asylum, which is a legal path to residency. But decisions on the validity of their claims are badly backlogged and can often take years to be completed.

Kip Kolkmeier, a Lakewood resident who spoke in favor of supporting migrants at last month’s City Council meeting, said those arriving in Colorado are “fleeing persecution, violence, corrupt and broken societies.”

“They want to work, they have a dream and they’re willing to work hard to advance that dream,” he said. “We can choose to be selfish or we can choose to be charitable. We can choose to welcome others or we can choose to treat them with suspicion.”

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