DENVER (AP) — Javier Guillen just wanted to get to the United States when he endured a three-month trek from Venezuela, through the Central American jungle and spent four days clinging to the roof of a Mexican train known as “the animal.” avoid the police and kidnappers.
But when he finally arrived in El Paso, Texas, last week, the 32-year-old settled in a new destination just one relatively cheap bus ride away — Denver, another 680 miles (1,094 kilometers) north of the border.
“It’s the easiest place, the closest to Texas, and there are people here to help immigrants,” Guillen said before heading to one of the networks of shelters the city has been trying to set up.
Over the past month, nearly 4,000 immigrants, almost all Venezuelans, have arrived unannounced in icy Denver with nowhere to stay and sometimes clad only in T-shirts and flip flops. The influx surprised city officials as they dealt with a flurry of winter storms that dropped temperatures to record lows and disrupted transit from the area.
As they appealed to the state to open new shelters, Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat who has earmarked $4 million to help care for the migrants, arranged for those who wanted to travel further to be bused to Chicago and New York. That led New York City Mayor Eric Adams, also a Democrat, who had already warned that his city was being overwhelmed by new migrants, to complain about the moves 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 all of the buses that have appeared at once, straight from the border and without resources.
“They’re getting a taste of what border cities have faced,” said Julia Gelatt, a senior analyst at the Migration Policy Institute in Washington. “The fact that people are showing up in groups with a need for basic services is really new for northern cities.”
In some cases, Republican governors — most notably Texas Gov. Greg Abbott — have tried to drive that message home by ferrying immigrants directly from the border to New York or near Vice President Kamala Harris’ Washington residence in the nation’s capital. Last year, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis also sent some to Martha’s Vineyard.
It’s unclear exactly how Denver became a new destination for Venezuelans fleeing their country’s economic and political chaos. Advocates found small numbers coming from the border in 2022 and warned the route was becoming increasingly popular.
Then last fall, many traveled to the U.S.-Mexico border in hopes that the Biden administration would end the pandemic regulation that allows the country to automatically return asylum seekers to Mexico. Instead, President Joe Biden in October added Venezuelans to the nationalities covered by the rule. Venezuelan border crossings dropped, but then something changed in Denver.
Whatever the trigger, the number of migrants arriving in the city rose dramatically to 200 a day in December, just as bitter winter frosts and record low temperatures swept through. The storms snarled roads out of the city and canceled several planned bus trips to places east, stranding many in a city already struggling to shelter its homeless.
In response, Denver converted three recreation centers into emergency shelters for migrants and paid for families with children to stay in hotels, setting aside $3 million to deal with the influx. She redeployed workers to process the new arrivals, assign them to shelters and help them get on buses. Residents donated piles of winter clothing.
“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 are not ready for this.”
Amelia Iraheta, a city public health worker who has been reassigned to work with migrants, said one man reported walking away from the border and arriving with a broken leg. One woman, who arrived in Denver barefoot, still had cactus spines on her feet after walking through the border desert. Most wore only the clothes on their backs – woefully inadequate for the sub-zero temperatures.
“When we came to Denver at the height of winter, the conditions weren’t exactly what I think they expected,” Iraheta said.
Most of them had no intention of staying long. The city and state say about 70% of the more than 3,800 migrants who came to Denver since they began tracking them on Dec. 9 planned to eventually go elsewhere. More than 1,600 have already left the city on their own, according to the city.
Polis’ office said he was not available for an interview. “The state’s priority is to make sure people get the resources they need and can reach the desired end goal, which is the opposite of the actions other states have taken to send people to places they probably had no intention of going,” said spokesman Conor Cahill. in the statement.
Jennifer Piper of the American Friends Service Committee, which has worked with the city and several nonprofits to help migrants, inspected one of the buses before it left Denver. She said all the passengers agreed they were there voluntarily and that almost all had friends or family in New York or Chicago they could stay with.
“They are adults in control of their own destiny,” Piper said. “The reality is they’re going to be on Greyhound buses eventually.”
The city has set a 14-day limit on stays in emergency shelters and is negotiating with other agencies and nonprofits to open longer-term facilities. It’s unclear how Biden’s new immigration policy, which opens up an additional 30,000 monthly slots for asylum seekers from Venezuela and three other Latin American countries, will affect the influx to Denver.
“I really don’t think it’s a flash,” Piper said. “Denver is on that path now and I don’t think it’s going to change for at least the next 5-6 months.”
It may take longer. Alexander Perez, 23, made the same arduous, month-long journey through Colombia, Central America and Mexico as many other Venezuelans. It includes a particularly brutal stretch of jungle at the Isthmus of Panama known as the Darien Gap, devoid of any roads and plagued by armed raiders and deadly natural hazards.
On the way, he kept thinking about joining his cousin in New York. After a week in El Paso, he hopped on a bus to Denver with the intention of continuing northeast. But after finding a warm welcome and eventually a hotel room, he began to rethink his itinerary. He needed to earn some money before he set out.
“Sometimes God takes you places,” Perez said as he stood outside a supermarket surveying piles of dirty snow.
Maybe, Perez mused, he could stay and make some money with a shovel.