What to Know About Denver’s Migrant Crisis

Almost 40,000 migrants have come to Denver in the past 15 months, a number that’s become hard to comprehend. “To put that in context, that’s Coors Field on a Saturday night in July when the Dodgers are in town,” said Jon Ewing, spokesman for Denver Human Services, during this week’s Colorado Sun virtual event on the migrant crisis. “You look to your left, you look to your right, up and down, and almost every seat is full. That’s the number of people that we’ve cared for over the last year.”

Here’s what you should know about how Denver is handling all this and what’s in store longer term.  How many of the 40,000 migrants are staying in Denver?  The best available data to answer this question is the number of one-way bus tickets the city has purchased to send new arrivals to other cities. That’s about 20,000 tickets, which means roughly half of the people arriving by bus from the Texas border are choosing to stay here.

There’s no accounting, however, for people who initially decide to stay in Denver but then end up moving to other Colorado cities in search of jobs or cheaper housing. “There are folks who do come to Denver who want to stay in Denver, that is absolutely the case,” said Ewing with Denver Human Services, the city agency in charge of migrant services. “We can pretty much bet that 40-60% of the folks who will arrive here by bus will want to go somewhere else, immediately,” he said. “They’ll just know exactly where they want to go, and then we try and get them there.”  People often request to go where they have friends or family who have already settled. Chicago and New York City have been the top destinations for one-way bus tickets.

How much is this costing?  Denver has spent about $60 million since migrants began arriving in December 2022, but that’s only part of it.  A report from the Common Sense Institute, a conservative leaning think tank in Greenwood Village, tallies the bill at closer to $100 million, when adding in the cost to schools and the health care system. Denver Health, the city’s safety-net hospital, estimated it spent $10 million caring for migrants in just three months. That’s a significant slice of the hospital’s $135 million spent last year on uncompensated care, which is care provided without payment from a patient or an insurance company.  “This is why institutions like Denver Health exist, so that they can be a designated provider for charity care for people who don’t have other means,” said D.J. Summers, Common Sense Institute’s director of policy and research. But “it is stretching every dollar that used to be projected to go to a designated purpose.”

Denver Public Schools estimates it has enrolled 3,400 migrant children this school year. Based on the Common Sense Institute’s calculation that the district spends $14,100 per student on instruction and support, that’s an extra $48 million. And it’s not just Denver schools or hospitals that are seeing the impacts. Migrant children have also enrolled in Aurora, Jefferson County, Cherry Creek and Colorado Springs schools. UCHealth, which includes hospitals in Aurora, Greeley and Colorado Springs, estimated it spent about $17 million in uncompensated care for migrants in a three-month span. “UCHealth does not have a single facility inside Denver proper, so we know that to some extent, there are other health care facilities that are absorbing some of the spillover effect,” Summers said.

The federal government has so far reimbursed Denver for $1.6 million, and the state has contributed about $3.5 million. State grants are fueling much of the nonprofit work to move migrants from city-funded shelters and into housing.


Why does the number of migrants fluctuate so much?

In some months, migrants have arrived at the pace of 200 people per day. The volume overwhelmed city services in September and October, then again in January, then slowed dramatically in February.  Now it’s picking up again. While just seven buses arrived in the entire month of February, eight buses came in the first 10 days of March. That includes three that pulled into town last weekend, Ewing said.  By now, Denver officials are getting better at anticipating when masses of people will arrive. They watch the numbers of border crossers in El Paso, Texas, knowing that when there is a swell there, that Denver will see one soon. The cities are 10 hours apart by bus.  “The numbers from El Paso this week are the highest they’ve been since the first week of January,” Ewing said.

“If there’s any kind of federal policy change, there’s always a little bit of an initial hesitation, trepidation, and then it picks back up again in about a month. People sort of figure out how this is working.”  Denver officials pin the September-October wave on Texas officials who began chartering buses directly to Denver. “That was when we had that enormous influx, the likes of which truly we hadn’t seen before,” Ewing said.Migration has always slowed down in the summer, the rainy season in Central and South America, because crossing the rivers and jungle of the Darién Gap in Panama is particularly dangerous. But it didn’t slow down much.  “You wouldn’t even chance it about 10 years ago,” Ewing said. “You’d say that’s way too dangerous. That’s not happening as much anymore. People are still taking that chance, and they’re still coming over in the summer now.”

Are migrants ending up homeless?

There’s no exact count of how many migrants have ended up homeless after their time limits in city-funded hotel rooms and shelters have expired. But the number has grown in the last two weeks as Denver scales back on services. The city, for one thing, is cutting the number of hotels it has used to house migrants from seven to three.  Nonprofits and volunteers who are helping people survive in tents say they’ve seen an increase in the number of people sleeping outside this month. Four families, including 15 children, who have been staying in hotels along Tower Road are timing out of their rooms this week and have asked for camping equipment, said Candice Marley, executive director of All Souls. Volunteers set them up with tents and warm clothes. “Our job is, if people are living outside, which they are, is to not leave them unsheltered,” she said. “We feel like that’s extremely cruel and inhumane. People are lying on mattresses outside without anything.”  City officials said that while nearly all of the new immigrants have found housing, some have “fallen through the cracks.” “One child on the streets of Denver is too many. Full stop,” Ewing said. “The people of Denver do not want to see children on their streets. It is not going to be tolerated, period. So we will double back and we will make sure that that is being addressed.”

What about a sanctioned migrant encampment?

Nonprofits and volunteers who are bringing hot meals, blankets and mittens to people living in tents have asked the city to allow a sanctioned migrant encampment, similar to the “safe outdoors spaces” Denver has created for its chronically homeless.  All Souls is hoping such a camp will open in three to six months, pending city approval. The nonprofit, based in Centennial, has watched several times as tent towns set up by migrants have been cleaned up by the city, causing further disruption to people trying to find work and eventually afford a place to live, Marley sai“They get swept all the time, so they’re always starting over at step one,” she said.  A sanctioned camp would have portable toilets and hand-washing stations, winterized tents, heaters and propane. Case managers on site would help get kids enrolled in school and connect people with job opportunities, Marley said. “We just have to face it — people are going to be living in tents,” she said. “There’s no way around it. Not everybody has jobs. Not everyone can sustain apartments. And so if they’re going to be outside, we need to properly manage them.”


Could Denver provide its own kind of work permits?

The biggest obstacle migrants say they face after reaching Denver is getting permission to work. The federal government announced in September that Venezuelans could apply for temporary protected status and work permits, but that expedited process is only for people who arrived before July 31. And even those eligible for temporary protected status still struggle to afford the $545 application fee and to find access to a computer to fill out the application.  And what about all the people who arrived after July 31? Migrants, who can apply for asylum at the border or after they’ve entered the United States, must wait 150 days after applying for asylum to apply for work authorization. It’s a process that takes several months. Could the city go around the federal government and offer its own kind of work permits? Nope, says Ewing, of Denver Human Services. “If I didn’t have to wait on the federal government, I think my job would be a lot easier and I think the city of Denver’s job would be a lot easier right now,” he said. “But unfortunately, we do have to wait on the federal government here. We can’t put employers or applicants out there with a process that isn’t federally approved. We can’t put them at risk. It’s just simply out of our control.” Mayor Mike Johnston had considered pursuing a plan in which Denver would hire migrants without work authorization for jobs in city departments. But that is no longer on the table, city officials said.  The Biden Administration signaled it would take action against the University of California if it followed through on a proposal to hire undocumented workers for campus jobs. The Board of Regents for the university system subsequently backed off.  Denver and nonprofits have held multiple clinics in the past three weeks and helped 1,600 people who were eligible to apply for work authorization fill out the required documents. “That’s 1,600 people who can now apply for a job, stand on their own two feet, take care of themselves,” Ewing said. “That’s an enormous accomplishment. “The big issue we have is for the folks who aren’t eligible for work authorization. In Denver, you see folks out there squeegeeing windows, trying to make 10 bucks a day working 10 hours a day. And that’s heartbreaking.”

Article courtesy of The Colorado Sun

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