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As Denver struggles to absorb influx of migrants, other services are cut


Migrants who've crossed the southern border into the U.S. are on the move, sometimes by choice, often not. Now Denver, Colo., Mayor Mike Johnston says he has to cut some city services to pay for programs to help the new arrivals. Johnston, a Democrat, told us the challenge really began last year when a type of protected status for Venezuelan immigrants expired.

MIKE JOHNSTON: Almost all of our migrants arriving are fleeing crisis in Venezuela. And more and more, the Venezuelans who arrived came to the country in October or November. They were not eligible for work authorization, so all they could do is try to file for asylum. And as you know, the asylum courts are so backed up that folks come to the city who I talk to and their court date is for 2029. So that's when we kept telling Biden and the secretary, you know, the biggest issues for us are, can you get us a real path to expanded work authorization, and can you get more federal dollars and federal support?

They heard us and fought to put those things into the bipartisan Senate package that was introduced that would have really solved this problem for us and for cities around the country. And that's why it was such a heartbreak to see a candidate for president in Donald Trump coming in and saying, I want this bill dead, not because it won't solve the problem but because I know it actually will solve the problem. And if it alleviates Americans' suffering and alleviates a humanitarian crisis, might hurt my chances at reelection. I just never thought we would have seen that moment, but that's what happened.

MARTIN: What specifically are you asking agencies and citizens of Denver to do?

JOHNSTON: We've asked every agency in the city to take a look at what they could do to make what is about a 15% cut to their budget across the city. Those agencies are all presenting options to us this week. We started the first set of actions this week, which includes reducing the hours in our rec centers, closing rec centers for some days and will involve closing some of our DMV sites on certain days and weeks.

And so we are having to make some of these hard decisions, and we'll also have to reduce some of the level and length of services we can provide to migrants. We've had more than 40,000 migrants arrive in our city over the last year, more than any other city in America per capita, and we have very successfully integrated them. To do that well just requires resources, and it will be impossible for us to do that at this scale going forward without any federal help.

MARTIN: Population of Denver, what, a little over 700,000, right?

JOHNSTON: That's correct.

MARTIN: So you're telling us that you've received around 40,000 migrants?

JOHNSTON: That's correct, so almost 5% of our entire city's population in the last year.

MARTIN: I think many people know that the Texas governor, Greg Abbott, has been busing migrants primarily to Democratic-led cities and states to make a point. Do you have a sense of how many were bused from the border and how many got there on their own?

JOHNSTON: Oh, almost all of ours are being bused from the border. Almost all the folks we receive are coming on buses sent from Governor Abbott. And that is really because we are just the cheapest bus ticket north of El Paso.

MARTIN: This bipartisan bill was negotiated, you know, over many weeks. Did it offer you some additional support so that you wouldn't have to cut your budget?

JOHNSTON: Yeah, it would have actually given us the federal support we needed to not cut budgets. We wouldn't be facing budget cuts if that had passed. We would have been able to provide the services that we're providing now with federal support, instead of us having to find city support to do it. So it both would have filled our budget need and would have solved the work authorization need for folks that arrive. These are folks that have walked 3,000 miles to get here. They're police officers and engineers and teachers. All they really need is a place to rest their head and an opportunity for a job, and they are hungry to support themselves.

MARTIN: Denver is a very diverse city. And it's, you know, understood to be a progressive city. But I can imagine that there are some people who are not pleased at the idea that their services are being curtailed to take care of other people with whom they may or may not have any connection. What do you say to them?

JOHNSTON: The dilemma is when you have values on both sides and you have to manage those values. We have a value of being a welcoming, compassionate city. And we do not want to be a city where women and children are out on the streets in 10-degree weather in tents. That's not part of our value system. And we also want to be a city that provides high-quality services to all of our residents. So without federal action, we're left to just manage that on our own. But it's not as simple as either you just stop supporting them altogether or you cut all the city budgets. What we're going to do is both.

MARTIN: Now that you've experienced this challenge, is there any part of you that feels some sympathy for the Texas governor, who says that his state is overwhelmed?

JOHNSTON: Oh, I've said that before. I understand what the Texas governor is facing. I've reached out to him in efforts to work together. But I think - I was surprised. I expected to see Governor Abbott out making the case for this border bill as well, because it would have provided him the resources and the support to be able to reduce the flow, manage the claims, not be overwhelmed. And so I think if we're looking for a solution, those are out there. And if the governor of Texas and others would work with us on a coordinated strategy, if we could get the Congress to pass the work authorization and federal resources we need, this is an eminently solvable problem that America can figure out. We figured it out here in Denver, we just need the partners to help get into the work with us.

MARTIN: That is the mayor of Denver, Mike Johnston. Mr. Mayor, thanks so much for talking to us. I do hope we'll talk again.

JOHNSTON: I appreciate it. Thanks so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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