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Denver Mayor Johnston says migrant spillover is humanitarian and fiscal crisis


Two-hundred twenty-six migrants arrived in Denver just yesterday, and that is on top of the 4,500 migrants the city's already sheltering and the 36,000 that Denver has helped in recent months. All that is costing the city a lot. It says it has spent more than $36 million helping migrants. And Denver Mayor Mike Johnston, a Democrat, says his city is facing both a humanitarian and a fiscal crisis. I have him on the line now. Mayor Johnston, welcome.

MIKE JOHNSTON: Thank you so much for having me.

KELLY: I want you to paint us a picture of what's happening in your city. I read - this was in The New York Times - that you were at a migrant encampment on Wednesday. Three hundred people were scheduled to be transferred. You were trying to get them out of the cold, and while you were standing there, more buses rolled in with more migrants from the border.

JOHNSTON: Yeah. We've had, you know, in the last couple months, particularly as the volumes have increased and as the folks that arrive no longer have work authorization, we've seen, for the first time, migrants end up in encampments outside on the street. And so we had an encampment of over 300 people. It's actually the largest encampment we've ever had in Denver. And just as we successfully moved those 300 people into housing, which was a great victory, we get, at the same time, a new arrival of the next set of buses coming from Texas with a new set of newcomers who need the same set of services. So I think we are doing everything we can to be helpful and think we're succeeding, but the volume does feel overwhelming.

KELLY: Yeah. I mean, it's freezing in Denver right now. It's January. For people who are not in a shelter yet, where do they go? What's the plan?

JOHNSTON: Yeah. So when folks first arrive, we are bringing everyone into shelter. Most of our shelter are hotel rooms. So we have about 4,500 people tonight in shelter across the city. Right now we literally have every single hotel room available in the city filled.

KELLY: So how are you going to pay for this? I mentioned when I introduced you Denver has spent more than $36 million already trying to take care of these people. You're on track to spend 180 million in the coming year if it continues on this trajectory. How are you going to do this?

JOHNSTON: We don't think that's going to be sustainable for us, and that's the very challenge we're facing - is at the same time, we don't think our city has the capacity to pick up $180 million budget next year. That's almost 15% of our entire budget. And also, we're not willing to let women with 3-month-old children end up on the streets in tents and 10-degree weather, and so that is where we find ourselves between a rock and a hard place. Really, the three things we need from the federal government are work authorization. We need folks when they arrive to be able to work. We need more federal dollars to help support us in terms of providing these services, and we need an actual plan for coordinated entry. You know, America knows how to do this. We did it with asylum-seekers from Ukraine. We did it with asylum-seekers from Afghanistan. That's why we want Congress to deliver that could help our city succeed.

KELLY: I want to fill in a little bit of the background here. These buses of migrants that are arriving in Denver are coming from Texas. Republican Governor Greg Abbott of Texas has been coordinating the arrival of these buses. He says he is providing relief to Texas' border communities. At a certain level, is his strategy working? He's got Democratic mayors like you and the mayor of Chicago and the mayor of New York now putting pressure on the Biden administration to fix this.

JOHNSTON: Yeah, I understand his claim. I don't think Texas should need to carry the entire weight of these new asylum-seekers, nor do I think any one or two or three American cities should do that. And that's why I've reached out to Governor Abbott and said we'd be happy to work together. We think there should be a coordinated entry system. And - but we think that there is a better way to do it than just targeting two or three cities and sending all of the migrants there. We understand why that's his instinct. We think we'd rather work collaboratively than work at odds to find a solution for the whole country.

KELLY: And just to press you on this, as a Democrat in a big election year, do you have any reservations about publicly putting pressure on President Biden over immigration?

JOHNSTON: I mean, we've been very collaborative with President Biden and the White House. We talk to them regularly. I think they agree with our belief. They agree with our needs. So I think we're aligned on what we want to get done. They see the problem, and they want to fix it, too.

KELLY: Denver Mayor Mike Johnston. Thank you so much for your time today.

JOHNSTON: You bet. Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.