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The Denver area is in conflict after supporting migrants bussed in from Texas

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Nearly 40,000 migrants have arrived in Denver since 2022, many on buses from Texas. Denver's leaders and residents have responded by providing support and shelter space for those arriving, many of whom are destitute. Now there's backlash from the suburbs as Denver has begun cutting some city services because of migrant-related expenses. Colorado Public Radio's Andrew Kenney reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF GAVEL BANGING)

ANDREW KENNEY, BYLINE: City council meetings in Lakewood, Colo., are usually pretty quiet, but recently hundreds of people crammed into City Hall. They'd been drawn by rumors that their suburban city government might open doors for new immigrants. Here's Michelle White.

MICHELLE WHITE: The city of Lakewood wants to enable the illegals by providing them shelter and food. They want to accept the responsibility for taking care of these migrants, including housing, food, medical, education.

KENNEY: Their overwhelming message was to close the door.

WHITE: What about our people that have been on the streets for years? Shouldn't they come first?

KENNEY: Lakewood officials denied the city was planning to support immigrants. And other local governments in liberal and conservative areas alike have passed measures telling Denver and nonprofits helping migrants not to send any to them. They're responding in large part to what's happened in the state's capital. Here's Dawn Austin.

DAWN AUSTIN: What you see tonight is informed voters who've watched Denver's decline and don't want the same here.

KENNEY: Denver has paid for thousands of beds and shelters and hotel rooms to keep migrants from setting up tent camps or sleeping on the streets. Mayor Mike Johnston says the costs are piling up and has announced $5 million in cuts to parks and recreation and the Department of Motor Vehicles.

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MIKE JOHNSTON: Our values are we want to continue to be a city that does not have women and children out on the street in tents in 20 degree weather. And we also want to be a city that provides all of our constituents with the services they deserve and the services that they expect. We want to do both of those. We have to find a way.

KENNEY: As Denver is straining, its leaders are getting exasperated. Denver City Councilwoman Amanda Sawyer.

AMANDA SAWYER: At the end of the day, we need help.

KENNEY: She and several other officials have grown increasingly critical of Governor Jared Polis, a fellow Democrat. They think he should be doing more to rally a statewide response.

SAWYER: The governor appears to have taken the stance that this is a Denver problem. And it isn't a Denver problem because we know that we are receiving - the state of Colorado is receiving migrants all over the state.

KENNEY: Polis declined an interview request for this story. His office pointed out that he has been active on the issue. The state's helped Denver cover some of the tab and provided some behind-the-scenes help. Polis has joined Democratic governors from other states in pressing the White House and Congress to do more. Here he is on NBC's "Meet The Press" last year.

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JARED POLIS: The federal government should step in. I mean, states can't solve immigration. We do the best with what we have. I wish we had the ability to grant work permits. We don't. We don't control the border.

KENNEY: But after Congress failed to pass comprehensive immigration reform this year, Democrats and immigration advocates here have been putting more pressure on the governor. Jennifer Piper with the American Friends Service Committee.

JENNIFER PIPER: I think there are localities who would step into this more if it was clear that they would receive some support.

KENNEY: It seems unlikely Congress will offer more funding soon, and President Biden may feel his hands are tied as he tries to appeal to moderates and conservatives in a year when immigration is a top issue for voters. For NPR News, I'm Andrew Kenney in Denver. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Andrew Kenney