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With nearly 4,000 people in shelters, and more coming by the day, the city of Denver estimates US$180-million in spending on migrants this year alone

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Andrea Ryall speaks with a family of Venezuelan migrants at Denver Friends Church, which has created a shelter for new arrivals who do not have housing, on Jan. 26.Nathan VanderKlippe/The Globe and Mail

A year ago, worries about gun control dominated Andrea Ryall’s thinking. She pulled her children from school, choosing to teach them at home rather than cry when she dropped them off, worried they would be the next shooting victims.

But the tens of thousands of migrants who have been coming to Denver have upended her priorities – and those of the state’s Democratic leaders.

For the past two months, Ms. Ryall, a Democratic voter, has joined with numerous other mothers in Denver to provide care for the busloads of migrants who have arrived here, many of them Venezuelans sent north from Texas. By some measures, Denver has received more migrants per capita than any other U.S. city.

Something, Ms. Ryall says, has to give.

“We are killing ourselves in this community, pouring out our financial resources, actual goods – boots, coats – and time. The insane amount of time. No one is sleeping,” she says.

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Andrea Ryall makes a request for clothing needed by a family of Venezuelan migrants. They are among the nearly 4,000 newcomers living in Denver shelters.Nathan VanderKlippe/The Globe and Mail

“Our lives are completely upside down. We need federal action.”

She’s not alone in begging for help.

Many of the migrants arriving in Denver have come on 10-hour bus trips from El Paso, part of a deliberate strategy by Texas Governor Greg Abbott to “bring the border” to Democratic cities.

While the White House has condemned Mr. Abbott for “cruel, dangerous and shameful” acts, Democratic leaders have joined in heated protest on the numbers of new arrivals. Migrants threaten to “destroy New York City,” Mayor Eric Adams has warned.

With nearly 4,000 people in shelters, and more coming by the day, the city of Denver estimates US$180-million in spending on migrants – about 10 per cent of its entire municipal budget – this year alone. With no capacity to borrow, the city must either cut services or decline help to new arrivals.

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Jose Aular, a migrant from Venezuela, helps other new arrivals find winter clothing in the basement of Park Church in Denver.

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Denver residents have donated coats, mittens and shoes for migrants who have arrived from South America, some wearing only flip-flops and t-shirts.Nathan VanderKlippe/The Globe and Mail

Mayor Mike Johnston has warned about “a humanitarian crisis for newcomers” and a “fiscal crisis for our city.” Denver has counted 38,253 migrant arrivals in the past 14 months.

“We need federal leadership on this right now,” Mr. Johnston says in an interview. At the moment, the U.S. is “admitting more people than they can process,” he says.

Colorado Governor Jared Polis, meanwhile, has joined with other Democratic state leaders to push for immigration reform and better border security, signing a letter last month with other governors to President Joe Biden that says, “America needs a federal solution that supports our economy, immigrants and fixes our immigration system.”

For years, immigration has been the top priority of U.S. Republicans. But with a presidential election looming and their own cities overwhelmed with new arrivals, the country’s Democrats have now taken a far more active role in seeking solutions.

“It’s a crisis for Democratic politicians as much as anybody,” says Floyd Ciruli, a pollster who is director of the Crossley Center for Public Opinion Research at the University of Denver. With a population that is one-third Hispanic, Denver had traditionally advocated a “softer, more humane approach,” he says. “Now it is moving.”

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A volunteer brings bags of donated clothing to Park Church in Denver. The hundreds of thousands of people arriving in northern U.S. cities have deepened the country’s divisions over migrants.Nathan VanderKlippe/The Globe and Mail

It’s a question of necessity, says Mike Dino, a Democratic political strategist in Colorado. “The state doesn’t have the money to house everybody. That’s the bottom line. It’s a numbers game.”

The engagement of Democratic leaders forms part of the backdrop to the new urgency in Congress, where a bipartisan Senate bill on immigration and Ukraine, reached Sunday, is set to go to a vote this week. The deal, which would expand border detention and cap entry for migrants, has been called one of the most conservative immigration proposals in years, although Republican leadership in the House of Representatives rejected it as a “non-starter” before even setting eyes on the legislation.

At the same time, the hundreds of thousands of migrants arriving in northern cities – including New York, Denver and Chicago – have only deepened the country’s divisions over how to treat the huge numbers of people crossing into the U.S. More than five million people have been arrested at the southern border since Mr. Biden took office.

For Democrats, meanwhile, it has tested the limits of an approach that is built on compassion, but struggles to function without immense funds.

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Colorado, for example, has spent the past few years building itself into a state that welcomes immigrants. In 2021, the state opened an Office of New Americans. Denver has an Office of Immigrant & Refugee Affairs and has helped to fund legal defence costs for immigrants.

In the past year, however, the state has taken a page from Texas and bussed thousands of people elsewhere. Officials in Denver have warned new arrivals that the city might not be the best place for them. “I can’t stress enough, Denver is very expensive to live in,” says Jon Ewing, a spokesman for Denver Human Services.

Others have tried to divert people before they arrive. “Our non-profit providers across the city have been calling and telling migrants not to come to Denver,” Mr. Johnston says.

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Children of Venezuelan migrants play in a shelter in Denver Friends Church. With temperatures well below freezing, the city extended the length of time families could remain in shelters.Nathan VanderKlippe/The Globe and Mail

At the same time, the city has provided additional help. Temperatures plunged to -28 C earlier this year and Denver extended the length of time families could remain in shelters. But that has only added to the financial burden, even as numerous people remain in difficult and sometimes dangerous situations.

New cash corners have emerged with migrants, many from Venezuela, waiting to be picked up for jobs that offer small amounts of money but few legal protections. City workers have cleared people from tent camps, only to place them in hotels where migrants say adults are given insufficient food and families are kept in cramped conditions.

“It’s been hard,” says Rosanghlely Colina, a Venezuelan mother who is living in a dual-bed Comfort Inn hotel room with eight people: her family of four, and another similar-sized family.

“We don’t really get along,” she says. When she complained, she was told she could either get used to it or find her own accommodations.

Others are sleeping in cars borrowed from friends. On a recent night, Brandon Daniel Alvarez Hernandez found parking in the mountains outside Denver for his wife and one-year-old daughter. They woke up at 4 a.m. when the heater stopped working.

“We knew it was going to be difficult here,” he says. Even so, shivering inside a frigid car with his daughter “was really painful.”

Some had no choice in coming here. Two hours after crossing the border from Mexico, José Aular was placed with his wife and children – a son of two and daughter of four – on a bus with darkened windows. Not once, he says, was he told they were destined for Colorado.

He likened the bus to a prison on wheels. They arrived in a city where help has grown more difficult to find.

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Newly-arrived migrants gather outside of a hotel in Denver to wait for jobs clearing snow. Such work offers small amounts of money and few legal protections.Nathan VanderKlippe/The Globe and Mail

Immigration lawyer Andrew Brooks gets 15 to 20 calls a week asking for help, but has stopped taking asylum cases, some of which are unlikely to be heard for many years. “Everybody is swamped,” he says. Researchers say the immigration court backlog in the U.S. now exceeds three million cases.

“The system obviously is broken,” Mr. Brooks says, adding that more judges are needed.

Mr. Johnston, the Denver mayor, says it’s possible to envision better, but not without major change. “We can welcome these people successfully if we have a system that allows us to connect them to work, and then connect them to housing,” he says. “We just need a federal government to take action to resolve this.”

Conservatives, however, argue that it would better for local leaders to demand that Mr. Biden assert more control over those coming in from Mexico.

“Until we cut off the flow of illegal immigrants on the border, this problem is going to continue to grow,” says Dick Wadhams, a Republican political consultant and former chair of the party in Colorado. “There is no amount of money long term that can solve this problem for cities like Denver.”

David Carney, a political adviser to Texas Governor Mr. Abbott, says Democratic states are “finally getting a taste of what these other cities along the border in America have been facing for three years.” But he argues that merely asking for more money to help those who cross outside of formal points of entry will not help.

“The magnet of coming to America is strong already. And what these guys are advocating is actually more magnets, stronger magnets,” he says. “It is insane. They want Band-Aids. They don’t want to fix the problem.”

Mr. Johnston suggested a compromise should be possible: “let’s bring order to the border. And let’s provide people legal paths to opportunities to work,” he says.

But Democrats have largely continued to reject a hard-line approach to the border. People are “coming because they are fleeing persecution. And they have known for their entire life that there’s a country in the world that has said, ‘send us your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,’” Mr. Johnston says. “And that is our country.”

Alan Salazar was chief of staff to Mike Hancock, the previous mayor of Denver who declared a state of emergency in late 2022. It is no surprise to see greater anxiety, even among more liberal voters, about the consequences of a welcoming approach to immigration, he says. But “the real solution is a more orderly process, a funded process” for managing and processing asylum requests,

“I put the blame on Congress, frankly,” Mr. Salazar says. “They haven’t updated the laws and figured out how to make this work in a more orderly way.”

Those volunteering to help, including Ms. Ryall, say the most important response is to provide new arrivals the right to get jobs, so they can care for themselves.

“Virtually every single resource that we have been killing ourselves to provide wouldn’t be needed if they had rights to work,” she says.

For now, though, at least some of the burden of care is falling on women like herself.

Migrants often arrive in flip flops, shorts and T-shirts. A Facebook group launched by Denver mothers last year to co-ordinate supplies for migrants quickly swelled to more than 6,000 members. They have assembled enough donated coats, toques, mittens and pants to fill a church basement.

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Andrea Rodriguez Cruz helped organize the basement clothing drive at Park Church in Denver, and spent her own Christmas and Thanksgiving holidays helping migrants.Nathan VanderKlippe/The Globe and Mail

Clothes arrive by the pickup truckload, in such quantity that it can be a struggle to find space.

Every week, 500 to 600 migrants come here looking for warmer attire, available free of charge.

“It’s a really amazing community-led effort. We’re kind of filling in the gaps where the city and state are not really stepping up,” says Andrea Rodriguez Cruz, who has helped to organize the basement clothing closet. She spent her own Christmas and Thanksgiving holidays helping migrants. She regularly gives up lunch breaks to volunteer and often works late into the night. “It’s a lot,” she says.

Still, she harbours no resentment.

“We’re almost all immigrants, right?” she says. How, she asks, could migrants be faulted for seeking a better life?

“This is the American dream, and we shouldn’t be taking that away from people.”

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