Denver limits who can stay in emergency shelters as migrants arrive in growing numbers

More migrants and asylum seekers are again arriving in Denver and city officials are restricting who can stay in shelters as they expect that trend to continue.

Title 42, a COVID-era public health measure that allowed border patrol to expel hundreds of thousands of people to Mexico or their home countries, expires Thursday. That means more people will likely be seeking asylum in the U.S. when they reach the border, a process that is legal but was blocked under Title 42.

In anticipation of an uptick in the number of people seeking a temporary place to stay in Denver over the coming months, the city has restricted its emergency shelters — if there is capacity — only to migrants who have what’s referred to as an “A-Number,” or an “Alien Registration Number.” U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services assigns these numbers to most noncitizens who apply to live in the country permanently.

City officials say the restriction is in line with updated federal funding guidance and that most migrants seeking shelter already have A-Numbers. But nonprofits and service providers call the change harmful to people who need help, particularly with the ongoing crises in Venezuela and surrounding countries. Venezuela is facing economic and political crises as well as human rights abuses, leading to an exodus of residents.

At Monday’s City Council meeting, two speakers during the public comment period decried the Mayor Michael Hancock administration’s position that it would only provide services to migrants who have already interacted with federal immigration authorities.

“This policy will cause a direct negative effect to those people seeking refuge in our country, some of them escaping violence and economic disparities in their home country coming here for a better chance at life,” Paolo Grimaldo, a staff member with bilingual human services organization Servicios de La Raza, said. “I want the City Council to fight for these migrant shelters to be available to everybody that crosses into the country looking for a better life.”

In an interview, Hancock said from the city’s standpoint, this is the best way to respond to the influx of migrant arrivals — by maintaining the city’s values of being a welcoming city and helping people in a compassionate manner while recognizing its limited resources.

Although increasing the number of unhoused people in Denver is a concern, Hancock said, the key, as learned from other cities, is to  “make sure you send the message very clearly what your position is, so that the migrants and the NGOs that are serving them, understand what Denver can and cannot do.”

Migrants suddenly began showing up in Denver at the end of last year, many arriving on buses from El Paso, Texas, stretching city services that Hancock said at the time was to “the breaking point.” The asylum seekers were not being sent by Republican politicians to make a statement as had occurred in other places, leaders said at the time, but were stopping in Denver to get to their final destinations, possibly because of Denver’s so-called sanctuary policies.

Earlier this year, the numbers dipped significantly from the hundreds arriving daily to about 20-30 people per day in April, with fewer than 400 people staying in the emergency shelters.

On Sunday, however, the city reported 198 new migrant arrivals with another 168 on Monday. The number of people temporarily living in city shelters on Monday jumped to 148 and those in non-city facilities (operated by city staff and volunteers) to 716.

Most of the people making their way to Denver still don’t intend to make Denver their final destination, according to Hancock, but many require services and temporary shelter space. The city is still mandating that stays in emergency shelters are limited to two weeks.

Since December of last year, Denver has served 8,366 migrants, according to city data, and spent more than $14 million on the response. The city is expecting to receive only $909,000 from the federal government. The state of Colorado has spent about $8.35 million, according to the governor’s office.

Hancock and Gov. Jared Polis sent a letter May 6 to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security urging the federal government to allocate more funding and resources to state and local jurisdictions, including to non-border cities like Denver, that are “shouldering this unprecedented federal responsibility.”

“While we appreciate any funding we can obtain to assist with this crisis, the funding we received is minuscule compared to the critical needs we faced and are facing on the ground,” they wrote.

Although the city has closed its emergency shelter space in recreation centers, there are four shelters for migrants still open. Two were at capacity as of Friday and the other two were nearing capacity.

The number of people currently seeking asylum is increasing, said Jennifer Piper of the American Friends Service Committee, not because of the end of Title 42, but because the situations in their countries of origin are worsening.

“People do not enter or not based on U.S. policy,” Piper said. “They enter based on root causes pushing them out of their country three months (prior).”

Some nonprofits have criticized the city’s response, saying not enough was being done to coordinate efforts with faith communities and other groups to provide shelter for people after their two weeks are up. Hancock said everyone has to remember that sheltering migrants is not a process that the city “is in the practice of doing” and officials will continue learning.

Providing emergency shelter is not something Hancock believes the city needs to be in the business of doing long-term. Instead, he would like the city to serve as a facilitator for funding between the state, federal government and nonprofits, and to help fill in the gaps.

“We know we’re not the best in terms of providing shelter,” Hancock said. “It’s not what we do. We’re not equipped for it and we certainly don’t have the capacity to manage it.”

Reporter Joe Rubino contributed to this story.

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