Border pressure is migrating north as Venezuelans move into Denver

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DENVER — Javier Guillen only wanted to go to the United States when he endured a three-month trek from Venezuela, traversing the Central American jungles and clinging for four days to the roof of a Mexican train known as “the beast” to deter police and evade kidnappers.

But when he finally arrived in El Paso, Texas last week, the 32-year-old settled on a new destination just one relatively inexpensive bus ride away — Denver, another 680 miles (1,094 kilometers) north of the border.

“It’s the easiest place, closest to Texas, and there are people here who want to help immigrants,” Guillen said before heading to one of the many shelters the city has set up as soon as possible.

In the past month, nearly 4,000 immigrants, almost all Venezuelans, have arrived unannounced in frigid Denver, with no place to stay and some dressed in nothing more than T-shirts and flip flops. The influx surprised city officials as they grappled with a spate of winter storms that plunged temperatures to record lows and disrupted transit out of the area.

When they appealed to the state to open new shelters, Governor Jared Polis, a Democrat who had earmarked $4 million to care for the migrants, arranged for those who wanted to travel further to be taken by bus to Chicago and New York. That prompted New York City Mayor Eric Adams, also a Democrat, who had already warned that his city was being overrun by new migrants, to lament the transfers from Denver.

The situation illustrates how record numbers crossing the southern border are bouncing north to cities like Denver, New York and Washington that have long been destinations for immigrants — but not busloads of them all show up at once, straight from the border and without resources.

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“They get a taste of what border towns have been through,” said Julia Gelatt, a senior policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute in Washington. “The fact that people show up in groups in need of basic services is really new for northern cities.”

In some cases, Republican governors — primarily Texas Governor Greg Abbott — have tried to get that message across by moving immigrants directly from the border into New York or near Vice President Kamala Harris’s Washington residence in the state capital. transport across the country. Last year, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis also sent some to the resort island of Martha’s Vineyard.

It’s not exactly clear how Denver became a new destination for Venezuelans fleeing their country’s economic and political chaos. Lawyers had detected small numbers coming from the border earlier in 2022 and warned that the route was growing in popularity.

Then, last fall, many traveled to the US-Mexico border in hopes that the Biden administration would end a pandemic ordinance that would allow the country to automatically return asylum seekers to Mexico. Instead, in October, President Joe Biden added Venezuelans to the nationalities covered by the rule. Venezuelan border crossings fell away at the border, but then something changed in Denver.

Whatever the occasion, the number of migrants arriving in the city spiked dramatically in December, sometimes reaching 200 a day, just as a bitter winter freeze and record low temperatures broke through. The storms gutted roads out of the city and canceled several scheduled bus trips to points east, leaving many stranded in a city already struggling to house its homeless population.

In response, Denver converted three recreation centers into emergency migrant shelters and paid for families with children to stay in hotels, allocating $3 million to handle the influx. It reassigned workers to process the new arrivals, assign them to shelters and help them board buses. Residents donated piles of winter clothes.

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“Cities and states are ill-equipped to deal with this,” Mayor Michael Hancock said in an interview. “Whether you’re on the border or in Denver, Colorado, cities aren’t set up for this.”

Amelia Iraheta, a city health worker who has been transferred to work with the migrants, said a man reported walking from the border and arriving with a broken foot. A woman, who reached Denver barefoot, still had her feet covered in cactus spines after walking through the borderland desert. Most wore only the clothes they had on – woefully inadequate for the sub-zero temperatures.

“Coming into Denver at the height of winter, the conditions weren’t exactly what I think they expected,” said Iraheta.

Most did not intend to stay long. The city and state say about 70% of the more than 3,800 migrants who have come to Denver since they began tracking on Dec. 9 have planned to eventually go elsewhere. More than 1,600, the city says, have already left the city of their own accord.

Polis’s office said he was not available for an interview. “The state’s priority is to ensure that people get the resources they need and can reach their desired final destination, which is the opposite of actions other states have taken to send people to places they probably didn’t intend to to go,” spokesman Conor Cahill said. in a statement.

Jennifer Piper of the American Friends Service Committee, which has worked with the city and several nonprofits to help the migrants, inspected one of the buses before it left Denver. She said all passengers agreed they were on it voluntarily and almost all had friends or relatives in New York or Chicago to stay with.

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“These are adults in control of their own destiny,” Piper said. “The reality is they would eventually be on Greyhound buses.”

The city has set a 14-day stay limit in the emergency shelters and is in talks with other agencies and nonprofits about opening longer-term facilities. It is unclear how Biden’s new immigration policy, which opens 30,000 additional monthly slots for asylum seekers from Venezuela and three other Latin American countries, will affect the influx to Denver.

“I really don’t think this is a flash in the pan,” Piper said. “Denver is on that route right now and I don’t think that will change for the next 5-6 months.”

It may take longer. Alexander Perez, 23, made the same daunting, month-long overland journey through Colombia, Central America and Mexico as many other Venezuelans. It encompasses a particularly unforgiving stretch of jungle isthmus to Panama known as the Darien Gap, roadless and plagued by armed marauders and deadly natural hazards.

Along the way, he kept thinking about joining a cousin in New York. After a week in El Paso, he boarded a bus to Denver with the intention of moving further northeast. But after finding a warm welcome and eventually a hotel room, he began to rethink his itinerary. He needed to make some money before moving on.

“Sometimes God leads you places,” Perez said, standing outside a grocery store and looking at mounds of dirty snow.

Maybe, Perez mused, he could stay and make some money shoveling.