Denver, CO

Migrant surge in Denver reaches record high

David Heitz

The surge of migrants into Denver from the Southern border has reached new urgency at City Hall.

More migrants now are being housed in Denver than at any other time since the crisis began last December, Mayor Mike Johnston told the City Council. He made his remarks during the mayor-council meeting.

According to the city’s online migrant dashboard, more than 1,900 migrants are being housed in non-city shelters. For the first time in several months, at least one city shelter has also been activated and houses 39 migrants, according to the dashboard.

“(Texas) Gov. (Greg) Abbott has been sending buses directly to Denver,” Johnston told the council. “We’ve had 10 buses arrive in the past week and possibly we will have five buses that arrive today alone.”

At a news conference on Thursday, a reporter asked Johnston what he would like to say to Gov. Greg Abbott. Johnston said he does not believe in making political pawns of marginalized groups, but that it does not make sense to send hundreds of people to cities where they dont want to go. He remarked he would "rather have a collaboration than an ambush.

Indeed, more than 300 migrants arrived Tuesday, according to the dashboard. Johnston warned earlier in the day the city “could eclipse the high water mark.”

Migrant response part of emergency operations center

The homeless emergency operations center has adapted to also concentrate on migrant sheltering. Johnston said the city has begun to reach out to the mayors of cities and the commissioners of counties as well as churches, school districts and non-profit partners to find places to set up congregant shelters.

Right now, the city is housing the migrants mostly in hotels. According to Johnston, the city is paying about $5,000 per month per migrant for shelter, food and sometimes a ticket to another city.

The problem with housing migrants in hotels, Johnston said, is not only the expense. The the federal government will not reimburse cities for housing migrants in non-congregant shelters such as hotels. The government does reimburse cities for warehouse-style sheltering.

'Not Denver's problem to solve alone'

One of the reasons the migrant response has been so expensive is because Denver is using city employees on overtime to staff the response. “We believe this is not Denver’s problem to solve alone,” Johnston said.

The city had been operating under an emergency declaration over the migrant crisis. That allowed Denver to procure for services more quickly and qualify for state and federal reimbursement. But Johnston let the emergency declaration expire several months ago when the migrant influx began to ebb significantly.

City Council member Paul Kashmann said he watched many migrants arriving at the city’s intake center Tuesday. “There were frequent arrivals of buses,” he said. “Nobody appeared gleeful and bouncing. It was more like, ‘OK, where do we go next?'” He said people would enter the intake center looking exhausted and exit with fresh clothes.

Allowing migrants to work

Council member Amanda Sawyer sounded an alarm that the migrant response is costing more than what the city budgeted for. Only $16 million remains in the city’s contingency fund, “and $16 million goes really quick," Sawyer said.

City staff members said they will be coming back to council with supplemental budget items. The city currently has a request for proposals out for organizations that could serve the migrants. City staffers said they are exploring budget alterations that will be needed to fully fund the migrant response.

Johnston said the city is spending its migrant response money four times faster than it was just 30 days ago. He expressed optimism that the federal government will allow migrants to work and offer “a way for them to support themselves.” Recent changes to federal policies allow the migrants from Venezuela to register as a temporary protected class and receive a work permit. Johnston said the city will pivot services to assist Venezuelans in completing the paperwork.

Johnston repeatedly has said the migrants want to work. He said there is an abundance of Denver employers waiting to hire the migrants.

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I've been in the news business 35 years, spending much of my career in editing roles at community newspapers in Southern California and the Quad-Cities of Illinois and Iowa. Upon moving to Denver in 2018, I began experiencing severe mental illness due to several traumatic experiences. I became homeless on the street for about a year before spending time in the state mental hospital. I am proof that people can rebound from even severe mental illness with proper treatment. I consider myself a lucky guy to live in a great place like Denver. I hope my writing reflects the passion I have for living in the Mile High City. You can email me news releases and story ideas at

Denver, CO

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