By Talia Traskos-Hart
For more than a month, Denver has seen more than 3,800 migrants enter the city, with hundreds arriving on a daily basis. The incoming migrant population began arriving in early December, with many individuals coming from Venezuela in response to the crisis in their home country.
On Dec. 15, the city declared a temporary state of local emergency in response to the continued arrival of dozens of individuals each day. Now, Denver is relying on community organizations and neighborhoods like North Denver to help the new population find shelter and settle into the city. About half of the currently sheltered migrants have been staying in city-operated emergency shelters, such as the Coliseum or recreation centers. Another half have been sheltered in community organizations such as churches and non-profit groups.
Jill Lis, a media relations representative at the city’s Joint Information Center, said Denver has relied largely on these independent organizations to be able to support the population. A team of community liaisons at the Emergency Operation Center has been working to connect with organizations across the city willing to provide space for shelter or donation collections.
Downtown spaces can only provide so much support, Lis noted. The Coliseum can only shelter 225 individuals, for example.
“Our intention is not to keep everyone in the downtown area … those migrant sheltering options cannot stay open indefinitely,” Lis said. “It’s very critical that we find other partners that may be willing to house migrants, whether it’s a faith organization, a nonprofit, or anything else. That can happen anywhere throughout Denver and throughout Colorado.”
In early January, the city reached out to Regis University about helping to shelter incoming migrants.
Dan Justin, assistant director of the Institute on the Common Good and a Philosophy lecturer at Regis University, explained that the school hurried to provide cots, meals from local restaurants, and supplies such as clothing for as many migrants as possible.
Justin has been helping to manage the site and organize volunteers and noted the University staff’s excitement at seeing families reunited toward the end of their journey.
“All of it was kind of just building it as we go and handling issues as they came up,” he said. “Many are just arriving with the clothing on their back … Some are going to be reunited with their mom or their siblings, and that’s been really incredible to watch, to see it coming together.”
The migrants entering Denver have already had their applications for asylum recognized by the federal government, and many have final destinations—such as family members’ homes—in mind. “The City of Denver has assisted a very large amount of people in relocating with their families and friends in different parts of the country,” Lis wrote in a statement to The Denver North Star.
Meilyn Pulgar Rivero, Alexander David Caridad Nuñez, and their 10-year-old son, Angelo, are currently housed at Regis University. They came to Denver from Venezuela in search of better jobs and educational opportunities. Throughout their journey, the family crossed 11 countries and often feared for their safety.
“It’s been a very strenuous journey,” Nuñez said. “It was very dangerous crossing the jungle and the days felt longer than they actually are. But that was just the beginning of the difficulty, because in Mexico kidnappings happen. We had heard many things about whether we were going to be safe, and many people did not want us there.”
After months of walking, the family reached El Paso, Texas, where they worked to be able to fund the journey to Denver. Justin noted that the North Denver community has been incredibly supportive of individuals who have experienced long journeys such as that of Rivero-Nuñez family.
“Our neighbors are always asking how they can help,” Justin said. “There’s a lot of great shelters around North Denver, and this really has been the community rallying together.”
“The reunification team from the city just arrived this morning,” Justin added. “We were able to kind of set up internet hotspots and a printer and so they began meeting with the families one on one, and they were able to purchase the bus tickets and print them on the spot to help the families get to their next destination.”
Dave Neuhausel, a pastor at downtown’s Denver Community Church and the director of the church’s Project Renew community service initiative, has worked to shelter migrants entering the city. He said there is a need to move centralized support out of just the downtown area.
“Most of the arrivals are coming by bus and are coming right into the center of downtown,” Neuhausel said. “But they’re not all able to stay there.”
Some North Denver churches and community organizations have found themselves with too little space to provide shelter for migrants, however, such as Pilgrim Church Congregation and Globeville Community Church. Pastor Sam Silva at Globeville Community Church noted that, despite space constraints, the church is doing all it is able to support incoming migrants. Regis University is housing approximately 50 people as well.
“We had a meeting where we fed families and expressed our hope to help any way we could,” Silva said. “Praying for them, trying to help them, that’s all we can do so far.”
Mayor Michael Hancock emphasized in a recent press conference that such constraints are increasingly present across the city. Local government officials and community organizations have provided large amounts of support, but will eventually face insurmountable resource barriers, Hancock noted.
“It is a balancing act. We simply are trying to do the best we can to respond to the current challenge that we have,” Hancock said. “There will come a time where I hope people understand that we have finite resources … We are in ongoing conversations with the state and federal government about that.”
Denver is not alone in seeing increased populations of incoming migrants. In his press conference, Hancock noted having had conversations with a number of mayors across the country–citing in particular cities like Chicago and New York–who expressed fears of reaching a “breaking point” with their capacity to provide support for migrant populations without federal aid.
Broader discussions on the policy facing incoming migrants were called forth when, in late December, the Supreme Court halted a trial judge’s ruling lifting Title 42. The now standing title allows migrants who could otherwise qualify for asylum to be dismissed from the border.
The Supreme Court has said it will hear arguments for the case in February, allowing for a more definitive order later this year. Neuhausel noted that in Denver, the longterm goal ought to be to support migrants in settling into communities like North Denver, where he lived for over a decade before a recent move.
This support can involve assisting with job placement, housing, and education opportunities, Neuhausel said.
“People agree that things like rec centers are not going to be permanent,” he said. “So this affects North Denver like it does all Denver neighborhoods, we’re going to have to choose whether we want to be a welcoming community for our new neighbors.”
Gov. Jared Polis in early January announced a partnership with Denver and local nonprofits, and he said about 70% of the migrants arriving aren’t trying to stay within the state but recently stayed here due to weather and workforce shortage as well as transportation cancellations.
The city and state are trying to provide intake, processing and transportation coordination to help the migrants safely reach their desired final destination. “Our priority is ensuring that this is done in a culturally competent manner, in the most humane possible way, and in coordination with the receiving community,” a statement from the governor read.