‘We need more support’: Denver, a sanctuary city, overwhelmed by influx of migrants | CBC News

When asked straight up to spell out her message to Donald Trump and other supporters of his campaign against undocumented migrants in the U.S., Daniella Crisbel-Burgos got right to the point.

“We are not here to commit crimes,” she said. “We just want somewhere stable to live.”

Crisbel-Burgos had spent that morning cooking hot meals on a propane burner inside the tiny camping tent she and her husband then called home, pitched on a sidewalk alongside a giant fairground in downtown Denver late last month. 

A couple dozen other tents lined the roadway, all of them occupied by migrants who’d fled strife in Central and South America to claim asylum in the U.S.

She told CBC News she and her husband ran from violence and political corruption in Venezuela two years ago, finally crossing into America last December. They were then immediately captured by U.S. Border Patrol agents and put in a holding cell.

Like so many others who enter Texas that way, they were loaded onto a charter bus and, as directed by Texas Governor Greg Abbott, transported north to a so-called sanctuary city, places that welcome and try to protect such migrants from deportation or other federal prosecution. 

A woman sits in front of a tent. She has her hair in a bun and is wearing a light blue Adidas striped jacket and dark blue Nike shirt.
Daniella Crisbel-Burgos, a migrant from Venezuela. (Lyzaville Sale/CBC)

In this case, Denver.

But the city has been inundated by migrants, as illegal border crossings into the U.S. from Mexico spiked to record highs in late 2023 — sometimes nearly 10,000 a day — before dropping off slightly in early 2024. 

Not least because of the busing program in Texas — itself overwhelmed — Denver, a city of 710,000, has taken in more than 40,000 migrants the past year. 

Although about half of them have since moved on, that’s the most of any city its size in America.

Denver’s response to migrants

On most days now, Crisbel-Burgos’s husband earns pocket change squeegee-cleaning car windows at Denver intersections while she holds up a handwritten placard begging for money.

“We’re not looking for government handouts,” she told CBC. “We’re only asking for two things: a work permit, and a safe place to be. Nothing else. 

“We came here for a better future.”

Despite the city’s determination to do all it can for migrants, there are only so many resources to go around, said Jon Ewing, spokesperson for the City of Denver.

A man wearing a brown suit jacket and dark blue collared shirt.
City of Denver spokesperson Jon Ewing. (Lyzaville Sale/CBC)

As a self-declared sanctuary city, like New York and Chicago, Denver offers municipal services to help migrants restart their lives in America.

That has included providing immediate food and shelter (often in temporarily converted downtown hotels), family counselling, guidance on paperwork for finding a job, lasting accommodation and help navigating the school system.

The city’s migrant response has come with a tremendous cost, to date having spent more than $60 million US on it.

WATCH | Denver has taken in roughly 40,000 migrants: 

Migrant crisis overwhelms Denver’s sanctuary city supports

The busing of migrants from Texas into sanctuary cities like Denver has pushed the immigration crisis north. CBC’s Paul Hunter went there to see what happens to migrants once they arrive and how the influx is straining city resources.

“There’s a huge financial component to this,” said Ewing.

“We’re staring down a $120-million [US] deficit right now. We’re still trying to find cuts [in services] for that, that are as painless as humanly possible. But it is tough.” 

Ewing said federal lawmakers have failed to ease the challenges brought on by the enormous influx of migrants, and have largely left it up to cities like Denver to struggle through on their own.

“At the end of the day, we need more support, because we can’t do this alone.”

But while there is strong public support in Denver to continue helping migrants, there’s also been pushback over the steep expense to the city, as well as concerns over the health and safety of people like Crisbel-Burgos, who’ve had to spend time in encampments.

A man looks through clothing racks while holding a baby. They're in a church basement.
A migrant with a child browses donated clothing at a donation centre in a Denver church basement. (Lyzaville Sale/CBC)

Ewing emphasizes the city will always find proper shelters for migrants with children, but absent an effective federal response, the challenges for Denver remain myriad.

“I think it’s going to take a long time [to resolve this],” he said.

“We have a long haul ahead of us.”

The fight for the White House

Into this now sits the fight for the White House in November.

By most polls, roughly a quarter of U.S. voters see immigration as the most important issue in the coming presidential election.

Former president Donald Trump campaigns on it regularly as he battles for a return to office. In so doing, underline his critics, he weaponizes fear. 

Trump has labelled undocumented migrants “animals” who are “poisoning the blood” of the country and who bring, as he puts it, “carnage and chaos and killing from all over the world.”

WATCH | Trump says some migrants are ‘not people’ at rally:  

Trump mixes insults and warnings with election promises

Former U.S. president Donald Trump’s weekend campaign comments are drawing heavy criticism after he called migrants ‘animals’ and implied there would be a ‘bloodbath’ if he doesn’t win the upcoming election.

The former president omits that broadly speaking, instances of violent crime in the U.S. dropped six per cent last year, despite the surge in migrant crossings.

President Joe Biden counters by reminding voters there was a comprehensive legislative plan this year aimed at tackling the border crisis directly. Among other measures, it would have tightened rules on claiming asylum and allowed for the border to, at times, be temporarily shut down. Both Democrats and Republicans supported the bill, but in the end Republicans blocked it at the urging — as Biden emphasizes — of Donald Trump.

‘Non-sanctuary’ Aurora

To be clear, even in Colorado, multiple communities oppose Denver’s approach.

Aurora, a city east of Denver, has explicitly declared itself “non-sanctuary,” and makes clear there are no tax-funded municipal services available for migrants who go there. 

City Coun. Danielle Jurinsky told CBC that Aurora embraces diversity, but wants no part in cost challenges like Denver’s.

A woman with her hair in a bun wearing a black shirt and coral undershirt.
Danielle Jurinsky, an Aurora, Colo., city council member, speaks to CBC at Aurora City Hall. (Lyzaville Sale/CBC)

“There is no way we can absorb [these migrants] without greatly impacting our residents,” she said.

Jurinsky supports Trump’s view that such migrants should be blocked from the U.S. until their asylum claims can be dealt with, a process that can take years.

And she agrees it’s a key issue for voters looking toward the November election.

“This is going to be a tipping point.

“Americans are taking this so seriously. They will vote in November with immigration in mind. They absolutely will. And if the Joe Biden administration hasn’t realized that now, I think they’re in big trouble.”

‘It becomes less abstract’

Back in Denver, volunteer organizations have stepped up, while the city struggles to find a way forward.

In a church basement filled with donated clothing, footwear and toiletries, many migrants are also offered guidance on getting settled in the city.

A woman stands in front of clothing racks. She's wearing a grey shirt and silver necklace.
Volunteer Jenifer Kettering speaks to CBC at a migrant donation centre in a Denver church basement. (Lyzaville Sale/CBC)

Organizer Jenifer Kettering tells CBC News the goal is twofold — to directly help families in need, but also to send a signal to those who oppose welcoming migrants.

“Our community rose up to something when it was on our doorstep, in our neighbourhood,” she said. 

“I think the more neighbourhoods get that exposure, it becomes less abstract. You see [that] their children are just like our children. They need the same things, have the same personalities, have the same sense of humour.

A man holds a girl's hand to help her get off the bus.
Migrants from South and Central America disembark from chartered bus at a shelter in Denver after traveling north from Texas to Denver, having crossed into America at the U.S.-Mexico border. (Lyzaville Sale/CBC)

“And when you see that, it’s just difficult to believe people should just suffer and starve.”

But even volunteer services take up time, energy and money. The church donation centre visited by CBC News was set to soon close. So too was the encampment by the fairground that was housing Crisbel-Burgos and her husband. And even as CBC News met with some freshly landed migrants at a hotel-turned-migrant-shelter, another bus pulled up at the front door with more people.

A woman speaks to the camera wearing a pink shirt and grey backpack.
Migrant Daris Daliz speaks with CBC at a donation centre in a Denver church basement. (Lyzaville Sale/CBC)

In the church basement, another Venezuelan browsed through a small box of secondhand blankets, sweaters and boots.

“We are humans,” Daris Daliz told CBC through a translator. 

“We are hard workers. We are honest people.”

Then she broke down in tears.

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