IN-DEPTH: Sanctuary City Denver Scrambles for Resources Amid Surge of Illegal Immigrants

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DENVER, Colo.—Pastor Bryan Sederwall, CEO of the Denver Dream Center, says he’s used to getting requests to meet the basic needs of the city’s homeless and less fortunate on short notice.

City officials gave him just days to set up a temporary supply center for newly arrived illegal border crossers from south of the U.S.–Mexico border.

“We got the call Wednesday [from the mayor’s office]. They know when they call, we try to move quickly,” Sederwall told The Epoch Times.

And move quickly they did.

Epoch Times Photo
Epoch Times Photo Newly arrived asylum seekers in Denver’s Reception Center wait for instructions before they disembark by charter bus to other U.S. states and cities. (Allan Stein/The Epoch Times)

Using nonprofit resources, the Dream Center managed to amass pallets of non-perishable food, bottled water and sports drinks, hygiene products, and other necessities to accommodate thousands of new arrivals.

On May 17, the supply center opened a 14,000-square-foot building next to the Dream Center’s administrative offices in downtown Denver to serve as a supply depository and distribution hub.

Other city-supported nonprofits accepting donations included The Potters House of Denver and the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado.

The Potters House began accepting coordinated drop-offs on May 22.

Resources ‘At the Max’

“The need is bigger than we anticipated. Allocated resources are at the max so now, we’re in scramble [mode],” Sederwall said.

“Again, we’re dealing with people. It’s not like we’re dealing with a building. We don’t have a budget. We’re making it up as we go.”

Epoch Times Photo
Epoch Times Photo Asylum seekers make their way to the bus station in downtown Denver, Colo., on May 17, 2023. (Allan Stein/The Epoch Times)

Taking it a day at a time appears to be the broader strategy as city officials hustle to locate available resources following a surge of illegal immigrants in the past five months.

Since December, the city has spent more than $16 million serving over 10,000 illegal immigrants needing food, clothing, housing, and transportation to other destination cities.

“Each night over the past five months, Denver has sheltered 400 to 2,000 migrant guests,” the city wrote on its website.

The city currently maintains five shelters with more than 1,000 illegal immigrants—near capacity.

At the same time, Denver’s urban streets and sidewalks continue filling up with tents of homeless people, many of whom refuse to accept social services.

“Our biggest goal is to try to mobilize communities with the ability to give and mobilize volunteers,” Sederwall said regarding the recent influx of asylum seekers. “If we can mobilize that, it eliminates some of the city stress on coming up with dollars to transfer into programs.”

“We try to say yes to meet a need. Now, we’ll backfill based on [whether] it’s going to be individuals stepping up to give. We’ll see what resources the city has. We’ll do our best to take care of people.”

Epoch Times Photo
Epoch Times Photo Pastor Brian Sederwall, director of the nonprofit Denver Dream House, shows a picture of city homeless people living in tents less than a block away in Denver, Colo., on May 16, 2023. (Allan Stein/The Epoch Times)

Sederwall said he prefers to keep politics out of what he sees as the organization’s humanitarian mission.

Still, it’s impossible to ignore the strain on the city’s ability to provide for citizens and a growing population of unprocessed immigrants claiming asylum at the same time.

“It’s a tricky situation: Our city’s tapped—budget and resource-wise—on the needs. [And] we haven’t recovered from our COVID days,” Sederwall said. “Our homeless camps are bigger than ever. Our mental health and addiction issues are higher than ever—and we’re still trying to figure that out.”

Epoch Times Photo
Epoch Times Photo The sidewalk on 21st Street in Denver, Colo., was a tent enclave for homeless people on May 17, 2023. (Allan Stein/The Epoch Times)

Now, factor in the influx of illegal immigrants, and “you’re competing with the process.”

On May 8, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock and Colorado Gov. Jared Polis penned a letter to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) urgently requesting more federal assistance.

“We implore [DHS] and relevant federal partner agencies to bolster direct support for non-border jurisdictions that are struggling to meet the immense human need resulting from continued migrant arrivals,” the letter stated.

“We appreciate the complexity of the challenge, particularly in the face of intransigence on the part of Republican Congressional leadership to prevent urgently needed changes to fix a broken immigration system.”

‘Not Equipped’ for Influx

The federal government has already granted $75 million in December 2022 and $350 million on May 5 to the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Emergency Food and Shelter Program to “assist communities receiving noncitizens released from custody as they await the outcome of their immigration proceedings.”

However, the program is “not equipped to keep up with the veritable ocean of human needs as arrivals continue,” Hancock and Polis told DHS.

Migrant Crossings At Southern Border Increase As Title 42 Policy Expires
Migrant Crossings At Southern Border Increase As Title 42 Policy Expires A Texas National Guard soldier watches as an illegal immigrant walks into a makeshift camp in El Paso, Texas, on May 11, 2023. (John Moore/Getty Images)

On May 11, Denver re-activated the Emergency Operations Center and Joint Information Center to coordinate the city’s humanitarian response.

“Over the past several days, Denver has seen a significant increase in the number of migrants arriving from the southern border of the United States,” the city announced on its website.

“Earlier this week, nearly 400 migrants arrived in one day, far eclipsing the 20-30 arrivals per day for much of March and April. As Title 42 expires today [May 11], it is expected the numbers of arriving migrants will continue to grow.”

At the downtown Denver Reception Center, dozens of new arrivals from Venezuela, Colombia, and other countries, sat waiting for bus rides to Chicago, New York, and other U.S. cities.

“It had dropped off quite a bit from early last week when they had one night [with] 400 arrivals. Last night, it was under 100,” Denver Media Deputy Jill Lis told reporters.

“We aren’t expecting or planning for a significant surge again—[but] we can’t tell the future. We’re doing our best to gather information from different sources to anticipate and plan for any surge. We’re just managing day-to-day, trying to provide the best care for folks coming in.”

The city’s immigrant dashboard keeps daily tabs on the number of arrivals.

Epoch Times Photo
Epoch Times Photo A woman walks up to the front entrance of the Denver Reception Center about 100 newly arrived asylum seekers were registered and sent into the community on May 17, 2023. (Allan Stein/The Epoch Times)

On May 21, there were 57 new arrivals, along with 1,086 illegal immigrants housed in non-city facilities and 149 in city facilities.

“As of Friday, May 19, Denver has sheltered and supported migrants from the southern border at a cost of more than $16.7 million,” the city wrote.

“The city covered costs using existing agency budgets, which is not sustainable in the long-term without impacting city services. The only funding the city has received so far to support migrant sheltering operations is a reimbursement award of $2.5 million from the state of Colorado. The federal government has provided $909,000 to Denver and $250,000 [for] Colorado.”

Epoch Times Photo
Epoch Times Photo Texas National Guard soldiers uncoil concertina wire near the U.S.-Mexico border fence in El Paso, Texas, on May 10, 2023. (John Moore/Getty Images)

Many new arrivals are young single men; others are families looking to settle in Denver or to connect with friends and relatives in other states or major cities.

Each one received an asylum seeker number after turning themselves in to the U.S. Border Patrol at the southern border. After processing, many were given transportation north to Denver due to the city’s proximity and sanctuary status.

Alexander, in his thirties, told The Epoch Times that he walked 3,400 miles from Venezuela to reach the U.S. port of entry in El Paso, Texas.

U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement (ICE) intercepted him twice at the border and sent him back into Mexico.

Alexander said his solitary journey began in October walking through “every single country” in Central America—where he could have applied for asylum instead of risking his life to travel to the United States.

He “just walked,” arriving in Juarez, Mexico, in January.

Soon afterward, he was kidnapped by members of a violent Mexican gang.

“He’s been through a lot. He said, ‘Yes, he did encounter gangs—cartels,’” said Alexander’s Spanish interpreter, Heidi Rodriguez, a public information officer for the Denver Agency for Human Rights and Community Partnerships.

“He was kidnapped at one point. He escaped through the roof and has had injuries, stolen phones, and stolen IDs. He tried to enter the U.S. twice. Both times he was returned to Mexico,” Rodriguez told The Epoch Times.

“One time, he did it while turning himself in. He spent about three months trying to get in [at El Paso].”

Epoch Times Photo
Epoch Times Photo Alexander, a Venezuelan national, gives a cautious thumbs-up waiting for a bus at the Denver Reception Center on May 17, 2023. (Allan Stein/The Epoch Times)

Treacherous Trek North

Wearing a blue summer shirt, shorts, and sneakers, Alexander sat on a bench and gave the thumbs-up sign before volunteers ushered him away to catch a bus to an undisclosed destination in the United States.

“Everybody arrives in a bit of a different state,” the city’s media deputy Lis said. “Some arrive with bags or have clothing and those kinds of things. Some arrive with literally the clothes on their back.”

Before Title 42 expired, Lis said the number of daily arrivals was between 100 and 150. Even though the numbers continue to drop off, the need for social services continue to grow.

“We just want to make sure folks have the essentials—water, food, clothing, hygiene products,” Lis told The Epoch Times.

The city reportedly purchased over 5,000 bus tickets for transporting asylum seekers from Denver to their chosen destination. Many will go to Chicago or New York City, where city officials say they are already overwhelmed by the influx.

Epoch Times Photo
Epoch Times Photo A young boy from Colombia waits for the bus with his parents in the Denver Reception Center in Denver, Colo., on May 17, 2023. (Allan Stein/The Epoch Times)

Even so, New York City’s Mayor Eric Adams said there are no plans to roll back the city’s sanctuary status for “undocumented migrants” despite the crisis and requests for more government funding, according to news outlets.

During the past year, the city received an estimated 60,000 illegal immigrants from southern border states in response to the uncontrolled flow of illegal entries under President Joe Biden’s open borders policy. Denver has a population of around 727,000.

Epoch Times Photo
Epoch Times Photo People walk across the Rio Grande to surrender to U.S. Border Patrol agents in El Paso, Texas, as seen from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, on Dec. 13, 2022. (Herika Martinez/AFP/Getty Images)

Sanctuary City-Bound

On May 16, Texas Gov. Gregg Abbott pleaded to the nation’s governors for help securing the 1,254-mile common Texas border with Mexico.

Twenty-four governors—all Republican—responded with pledges to support the effort.

“The flood of illegal border activity invited by the Biden Administration flows directly across the southern border into Texas communities, but this crisis does not stop in our state,” Abbott wrote.

“Emboldened Mexican drug cartels and other transnational criminal enterprises profit off this chaos, smuggling people and dangerous drugs like fentanyl into communities nationwide.”

“In the federal government’s absence, we, as Governors, must band together to combat President Biden’s ongoing border crisis and ensure the safety and security that all Americans deserve.”

Two days later, Denver received a chartered bus with 41 illegal migrants organized by Texas state officials.

“Until this point, people have been arriving in Denver on commercial transportation, and this is the first bus coordinated by another state which Denver has received,” the city reported on its website.

“The city is doing everything possible to ensure people are not unsheltered, especially given sudden changes in the weather that often occurs in Denver during the spring.”

Mayor Hancock reiterated the city’s status as a “welcoming” haven for asylum seekers in view of the material challenges.

“Denver is a welcoming city, and I am grateful to all our partners and city employees who have worked tirelessly to serve over 10,000 people who have come to us for refuge,” Hancock said in an open letter.

“However, Denver’s resources are not bottomless, and we continue to call on the federal government to send aid to cities across the country that are unfairly bearing the financial burden of this humanitarian crisis.”

Epoch Times Photo
Epoch Times Photo The waiting line for newly arrived asylum seekers at Denver’s Reception Center in Denver, Colo., reading, “Single Men Who Stay In Denver” on May 17, 2023. (Allan Stein/The Epoch Times)

Ten states, including Colorado, have passed laws to provide sanctuary for illegal immigrants, blocking federal efforts to deport them.

Under Title 42, illegal immigrants stopped at the U.S. southern border were sent back to Mexico to prevent the northward spread of COVID-19 and other infectious diseases.

Among the largest sanctuary cities in the United States are New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, Philadelphia, San Diego, San Jose, Columbus, Seattle, and Denver.

Crisis at Border in Arizona

With its ongoing southern border crisis in Arizona, Maricopa County is also facing a worsening homeless crisis.

County officials last week announced a $10 million program to provide a 60-room motel for homeless residents in Tempe, funded by the county and federal government.

The project will provide housing for 120 homeless people when completed.

Maricopa County Communications Manager Amy Bolton told The Epoch Times it is unlikely that the motel will be used to house illegal immigrants.

“Given the time frame of the availability of this property for housing, and the availability of other resources in the community specifically designed to support people immigrating into the United States, it is unlikely that the motel in Tempe would house any immigrants,” Bolton said.

Surge Of Immigrants From Venezuela Stretch Resources In Border Cities
Surge Of Immigrants From Venezuela Stretch Resources In Border Cities Asylum seekers from Venezuela gesture as they reach the U.S. border fence to turn themselves in to the U.S. Border Patrol after crossing the Rio Grande from Mexico in El Paso, Texas, on Sept 22, 2022. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

‘Earlier than Expected’

Lis said the city of Denver has been doing an online daily tally of arrivals since Dec. 9. While about a quarter decide to stay in Denver, most move to other cities or states.

“We were not surprised there was a resurgence of folks coming across the border,” Lis said. “It started to happen a little bit earlier than expected. Our Department of Human Services is managing an ongoing influx since the emergency operation center stood down in early March.”

At the Denver Reception Center, newly arrived asylum seekers go through a process to determine their need for shelter, food, clothing, and their final destination.

The center’s waiting area looked very much like a bus terminal, with families and solitary travelers seated on benches, waiting to embark on the next leg of their migration.

“For the most part, it’s been much more subdued and slow-going today,” Lis said, adding that the center had opened two overflow rooms at the height of the surge.

Daily arrivals must also undergo a health screening for infectious diseases or other health issues. However, according to one of the center’s volunteer nurses, there has yet to be any to report of a serious problem.

“Not that we’ve seen,” she told The Epoch Times. “They can come and talk to us and try to figure out the next steps.”

Several non-city shelters did not respond to requests for comment or tours of their facilities from The Epoch Times. City-run shelters have been designated off-limits to the media.

U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) said she blamed the Biden administration and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas for the current border crisis.

“The invasion at the southern border has turned every state into a border state,” Boebert said in an email to The EpochTimes.

“Illegal aliens are overwhelming cities nationwide, particularly in my home state of Colorado. I am holding Joe Biden and Alejandro Mayorkas personally responsible for this invasion, and I voted for the most comprehensive border security legislation in decades to build the wall and stop this invasion immediately,” Boebert added.

“If Joe Biden wanted to fix his border crisis, he could tell the Senate to pass the bill that already passed the House and sign it into law. He has the tools to fix this crisis immediately, but instead he has intentionally chosen to destroy our country.”

Shelters Bearing the Brunt

Sederwall, who started the Denver Dream Center about 17 years ago, said the center’s main focus has been to help youth and adults in recovery, needing outreach, or seeking re-entry into society.

The organization has four buildings for housing programs and services.

“We adjust according to our city’s needs,” Sederwall said. “There’s a lot of families and kids [arriving]. With our location, we work with the city and fill gaps.”

Epoch Times Photo
Epoch Times Photo Newly arrived asylum seekers on May 17, 2023 await instructions once they get to their next destination by bus. (Allan Stein/The Epoch Times)

One pressing need was to find a place for the collection and distribution of non-perishable food, hygiene products, diapers, underwear, and other necessities earmarked for asylum seekers.

“We’ve pivoted and shifted much of our team into that mode,” Sederwall said.

The supply center adds yet another layer of responsibility, Sederwall said, and not one the Dream Center could have imagined a few weeks ago.

Sederwall said the growing influx of asylum seekers before and after Title 42 surprised many Denver residents.

“Before Title 42, we were around 200 migrants a day reaching the city. I think a lot of them are trying to get somewhere. An unfortunate part of the process is they’re getting to cities, and then cities are reallocating to other cities and locations,” Sederwall said.

“Some are settling [in Denver]; some disperse in other cities.”

And it’s not as if the city had a “bucket of funds” to address the increase.

Epoch Times Photo
Epoch Times Photo Denver Dream Center Logistics Manager Josh Davis goes over the inventory of donated items at a temporary supply center in downtown Denver on May 17, 2023. (Allan Stein/The Epoch Times)

“This caught everybody by surprise. In Denver, like most major cities, homeless camps have exploded. We’ve got the street issues we’re trying to deal with and strengthening our shelters.

“I don’t think [the city] was prepared for the influx of migrants when we’re already dealing with the streets and shelters,” Sederwall said.

Sederwall said his organization does what it can and would like to do more.

However, given the city’s finite resources, the challenge is finding a workable balance of time, money, and supplies absent a long-term solution.

“I wish I had a better answer. We met with some of our staff this morning to walk through some of the hours and determine what to do in the evening.

“I’ve got a Zoom call with the city on Friday. The next few days will be like getting it going so the city can point to a solution,” Sederwall said.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misstated Bryan Sederwall’s title. The Epoch Times regrets the error.

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