DENVER — Mayor Mike Johnston, speaking from a large migrant encampment site near Zuni Street and Speer Blvd. in Denver Wednesday morning, said Denver’s response to the ongoing migrant crisis “is not sustainable” as the city worked to move hundreds of people from the camp into housing.
Just in the last week, over 1,500 migrants have arrived in Denver from Central and South America, according to the latest numbers from the city.
“What we're finding from our own outreach workers, as well as from the neighborhood, is it is much harder for us to provide services and keep people safe in this outdoor setting than it is in an indoor congregate site,” said Johnston. “So what we are doing is we are moving all of the folks from this encampment today to one of three locations.”
Johnston added that 386 people from the site have completed applications for housing with more than 95 moving into leased units.
As crews on Wednesday morning began closing the site at Zuni and Speer a fire broke out at around 8:45 a.m.
Denver7 reporter Veronica Acosta, who was on the scene, said the fire was quickly put down by first responders, leaving behind a charred fence. Firefighters moved people away from the fire and there were no reported injuries.
Migrants at the camp spoke with Denver7 earlier this week and shared their struggles traveling thousands of miles in search of a better life and a place to work.
“We know that we are not liked by everyone, but in reality, all the people who died along the journey had a dream of getting ahead and achieving many things,” said Arturo Verde, who arrived in Denver from Venezuela.
He told Denver7 reporter Brandon Richard he came to the U.S. alone, with no family, and is looking for employment.
Standing outside the camp, Mayor Johnston outlined what he believes are the three obstacles facing Denver’s response to the migrant crisis, including the need for work authorizations and more support from the federal government.
“If every one of these individuals arrived in Denver with a work authorization the day they got here, we would need almost no federal support. They'd be up in supporting themselves quickly,” said Johnston. “If they arrive and are here for three months or six months or two years and can never work, we're gonna need endless amounts of federal support for those individuals.”
The cost is adding up for the city, according to Johnston, who on Tuesday said Denver is facing a $180 million figure in 2024, representing between 10% and 15% of the overall general fund budget.
Since the beginning of the crisis in December 2022, Denver has spent around $36 million to help over 34,000 migrants, Johnson said.
"Right now Denver is the single-largest recipient of migrants per capita of any city in America. We have two and a half times more migrants than just the next city per capita, and that is not because of any strategy,” reiterated Johnston. “It's because we are the first and cheapest bus ticket north of El Paso from Texas. And so it's the easiest place for folks to send people if they're looking for the next city. That is not a strategy to succeed.”
In terms of immediate action, the mayor pointed to the federal government adding a temporary protective status for Venezuelans who arrived last summer allowing those migrants to find employment through work authorization.
Mayor: Migrant crisis could cost Denver $180 million in 2024
“What you see in the last two months is every one of these folks who have arrived have arrived after that temporary protective status was in effect, so none of these folks have a path to work authorization, which is why they'll end up without jobs or without a place to live,” said Johnston.
As migrants are transitioned from the Zuni and Speer encampment site into temporary shelter, the city said the goal is to keep them there for 30 days with the plan to move migrants into housing or other cities entirely if they want to leave Denver.
Texas Governor Greg Abbott said on Tuesday the state had sent more than 95,000 migrants to "sanctuary cities" including Chicago, New York City and Denver and has no intention of stopping.
Texas governor says he's sent 95,000 migrants to 'sanctuary cities'
"Sanctuary cities like NYC and Chicago have seen only a fraction of what overwhelmed Texas border towns face daily," said Governor Abbott on social media. "We will continue our transportation mission until Biden reverses course on his open border policies."
In response to the crisis, New York Mayor Eric Adams issued an executive order requiring a 32-hour notice from charter bus companies before dropping off migrants in that city, but NYC-bound migrants have been dropped off in New Jersey.
Officials in that state called it a "loophole" in NYC's new policy.
Asked if his administration was considering similar executive orders on bus arrivals, Johnson said that was not "our biggest challenge" adding he is focused on coordinating with cities where migrants begin their journey in the U.S.
"I was talking to mayors from other cities about their willingness to collaborate with us on a coordinated entry system. If there's not going to be a federal system, we will work directly on trying to create one with a partnership of cities," said Johnston. "Because our belief is if there are, you know, 200,000 migrants right now arriving and just three cities around the country, if we have all 100 of the biggest cities in America, say 'We'll just take our pro-rata share of those individuals,' it's much more manageable for cities."
Jon Ewing, a spokesperson for Denver Human Services said for migrants who are working and have filled out rental applications for housing, the city would cover the first month’s rent and security deposit fees.
“And then if they're not working at the moment, we’ll maybe cover up to three months,” Ewing said.
He added the city doesn’t have the funds to keep the support going.
“Until the federal government comes through with the money that we've been requesting for several months now, for the better part of a year now, we're not going to be able to do that," said Ewing.
The encampment site in northwest Denver has been supported by volunteers and organizations working to help migrants who bring little possessions and mostly live in tents.
Johnston thanked community members across the city for opening their hearts.
"This has also been an incredibly moving testament to the generosity of Denverites, which is that the neighbors in this neighborhood have come forth at every single stage with food, with clothing, with support, with help to housing, people who stood up nonprofits on their own to provide housing and support and so we are deeply grateful for their generosity and for their spirit and their support," said Johnston.
For Denverites looking to help, Johnston said there are needs outside of immediate housing concerns, including people who speak Spanish and can help migrants with applications and legal support for work authorization applications.
As the city grapples with the ongoing crisis, Johnston addressed Denverites who might be angry at the lack of solutions. "You know, there was a fire here this morning, we know there's a public safety risk for neighbors — and that's a fair expectation that everyone should be safe in their neighborhoods," said Johnston. "We know this wasn't safe for the folks living in the encampment. It wasn't safe for the surrounding neighborhoods. So we think that's our obligation."