Editor's note: A previous version of this story quoted the mayor saying migrants face 340% inflation in their home country. During his news conference, the mayor said 34,000%. The story has been updated to reflect the direct quote.
Denver Mayor Mike Johnston announced a reduction in DMV and Parks & Recreation services Friday to help the city deal with the influx of migrants after the failure of a bipartisan immigration bill in Congress.
"This is a plan for shared sacrifice. This is what good people do in hard situations as you try to manage your way to serve all of your values. Our values are we want to continue to be a city that does not have women and children out on the street in tents in 20 degree weather," Johnston said in a Friday morning news conference.
There have been more than 40,000 newcomers in this city over the last year, according to Johnston.
Right now, the city has about 4,000 people in shelters, Johnston said. "About 80% of them are families and kids."
With a lack of support in Congress for the proposed immigration bill, "we will not have a likely reduction in number of folks that are crossing the border without access to work authorization. We'll have more folks who will arrive in Denver without a path to CBP One or a path to TPS, which means they don't have a path to work," Johnston said.
U.S. House Speaker Mike Johnson, along with the rest of the House's top GOP leaders, said in a joint statement Monday they were opposed to the legislation because “it fails in every policy area needed to secure our border and would actually incentivize more illegal immigration,” the Associated Press reported.
They pointed to the part of the bill that would grant work authorizations to migrants who qualify to enter the asylum system. Those migrants would face a tougher but faster path to getting their claim reviewed, the Associated Press reported. Many would receive those interviews within days of arriving at the border, and final decisions on their asylum claims would happen within months, rather than the often years-long wait that happens now.
Legal process migrants in Denver must go through to obtain a work permit
If that had been approved instead, "we wouldn't have needed another press conference on the migrant crisis. There would be no migrant crisis," Johnston said.
Without the federal support, the mayor said the city will come up with a plan for how to adjust the types of services provided to migrants, the number of newcomers the city can serve and how to make those services more cost effective.
Denver officials unsure of resource impacts as migrant families exit shelters
Denver spent over $5 million in 2023 on bus tickets alone for migrants to travel elsewhere. The city purchased about 19,000 bus tickets that cost around $300 on average, according to Anne-Marie Braga, the executive director of Denver’s Department of Human Services.
That figure only represents 11% of the total spent in 2023, according to a breakdown of the costs from the city’s migrant response.
In all, the city spent $46 million responding to the migrant crisis, with the bulk of that going to hotel and lodging, the Mayor Mike Johnston’s deputy chief of staff Evan Dreyer said earlier this month.
The lack of federal funding is made worse by money that was promised to Denver last spring, but the city has still not received, Denver City Council Jamie Torres said. Torres stood by the mayor's side during the news conference Friday.
But Mayor Mike Johnston emphasized, "I want it to be clear to Denverites who is not responsible for this crisis that we're in - the folks who have walked 3,000 miles to get to the city. Families like one I talked to who were running a grocery store in Venezuela where you are living through 34,000% inflation. So the coke that you were buying for $1 is now selling for $340. But your monthly play is still stuck at $40. That is not survivable."
The mayor also got emotional recounting the story of a migrant he talked to who had to leave his 13-year-old daughter in Colombia over fears she would get raped along the journey, and continued on to the U.S. with his 5-year-old child.
But along the way, the migrant had "to hold that 5-year-old's hand while he watches as a mom and an 8-year-old and a dog made their way through an incredibly treacherous mountain pass. And the 8-year-old's worry that the dog is about the fall off the edge of the mountain so reaches to grab the dog. And the dog goes over the edge, and the child goes over the edge and the mom goes over the edge chasing that child and that dog. And that dad is standing there watching his entire family be lost in a matter of seconds."
Johnston said one of the motivations for those migrants going through all that is to work in the U.S., which Mayor Johnston has spoken about on national TV multiple times, in addition to traveling to Washington, D.C. to advocate for more work authorizations for newcomers.
"The federal government, this week, said those folks who want to work in this country cannot be employed by people in this country to who want to hire them. That is the crisis," Johnston said.
There is an employer looking for 300 employees right now, Torres told the audience at the news conference.
"He can't fill any of them. And he can't fill them with this population either, even though they desperately want those jobs. And so this incongruency is the difficulty that not just Denver's going to face, but every single city in our community is going to be impacted by," Torres said.
Johnston doubled down on that point, telling the audience at the news conference, "even at our peak of arrivals in the city, we had more jobs than we had newcomers arriving."
And that's just not the case in Denver.
Denver is cutting these services in 2024 to respond to the migrant crisis
Johnston said that during his conversations with other mayors around the country, they've told Johnston they would love for migrants to come work in their cities. They have labor shortages similar to Denver.
The mayor of Chicago Brandon Johnson told Denver Mayor Mike Johnston that the problem is specific to migrants coming from south of the U.S. border.
"They have, over the last year, welcomed more Ukrainian immigrants to the City of Chicago than they have immigrants from south of the border. Yet, you cannot find a single Ukrainian immigrant in Chicago because they are all in a job, in a neighborhood, in a home, kids in school, because they all came with work authorization. And they came with federal support. And they integrated seamlessly," Johnston said.
He told the audience at the news conference that Denver has figured out what it takes to provide successful services to the migrants coming from south of the border.
"We can navigate someone who arrives into work authorization, into housing, into successful integration. It just requires resources and work authorization, and those are the things we needed from the federal government," Johnston said.