Opinion: We can’t care for those seeking asylum without state and federal help

Two days after Christmas, I received a panicked message from a Venezuelan mother I recently met. She sent a picture of a flyer taped to her tent — the tent where she, her husband, and their two young children had been sleeping for weeks — warning that on Jan. 3, the encampment where they were staying would be dismantled. As warned, city workers arrived at the encampment, broke down tents, piled belongings for trash pickup, and dispersed those sleeping there.

Families with income were placed in permanent housing with financial support for the deposit and first month’s rent, but those units went quickly. Families who had not yet secured work — like the family whose mother had texted me — were sent to congregate shelters. Still, others ended up in a tent elsewhere in the city.

Volunteers like me have tried for weeks to help this family connect with resources in Denver. The family entered the U.S. legally, seeking asylum, but received little information about what to do next. We have sought to bridge the knowledge gap, but the barriers they face feel insurmountable.

The biggest hurdle is the lack of work authorization: Despite entering through established immigration checkpoints, many are not eligible to apply for work permits. If they apply for asylum status, the easiest path to work authorization, they will have to wait 180 days before being legally eligible to work. Once that waiting period ends, they must pay for the $475 work permit application. Without a permit, they cannot earn money; without stable employment, they cannot access housing.

Meanwhile, these newcomers have arrived on buses from Texas — often hundreds of people daily — without necessary supplies, finding themselves in the middle of a Denver winter wearing only shorts and sandals. The buses drop them, unannounced, miles from the intake office, where they must register and apply for temporary shelter.

Once they are placed in a shelter, they are told they have a time limit: 14 days for single adults and couples, 37 days if they have minor children with them. Confusing, shifting shelter policies and poor communication to and by shelter staff mean that many families end up on the street.

With nowhere else to go, they end up in tents like my new friend, who messaged me in Spanish, “What do we do now? We have nowhere to go.” Even now, living in a shelter, she struggles to find enough food to feed her children; the white bread and cold-cut sandwich each person receives each day is hardly suitable for her 2-year-old and is not enough sustenance for anyone.

Denver faces an impossible task. More than 37,000 migrants have arrived in the city in the last year — a small percentage of the 7.7 million who fled Venezuela’s economic crisis in 2023. Until July 31, Venezuelans were eligible for Temporary Protected Status, which made them immediately eligible to apply for work permits. But the newcomers continued to enter after that temporary eligibility expired, so most who arrive now struggle to find work and housing.

As a result, Denver’s formal support systems are strained beyond the breaking point. Volunteers try to fill the gaps, but even those informal supports are nearly tapped out. A call went out today for 40 more tents to shelter new arrivals, but the neighborhood stash was depleted. As one volunteer went to buy more, others raised funds to cover the costs, but volunteers cannot keep footing the bill for these supplies.

By mid-December, community members had already cooked and served more than 20,000 meals for migrant neighbors, provided warm clothing to thousands, and donated more than $134,000 at a time when many are struggling financially themselves. We need state and federal help — now.

First, the Biden administration must extend the TPS designation, remove wait times for work permits, and waive fees so families can get to work sooner. Second, Denver and the surrounding jurisdictions need emergency funding to open more shelters and provide adequate nutrition to those staying in them. And third, we need immediate investments in the workforce for case management, legal assistance, and English-language support to these families both in schools and as they navigate safety net systems.

Denver would be wise to help these newcomers to get established here. The migrants I have met are persistent, brave, and determined to make a better life for themselves and their families. Those with jobs are contributing to our economy, paying taxes, and helping to support other newcomers. In fact, Colorado immigrants paid more than $5 billion in taxes in 2021, and wielded nearly $18 billion in spending power–money that flows through our economy and benefits us all.

And those without jobs still work to benefit the community: cleaning the encampment areas, cooking for the camp, and helping to distribute donated clothes and meals. We should welcome these driven, hardworking new neighbors.

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Instead, we are witnessing a humanitarian crisis on our doorsteps. Our state and federal legislators must take action now.

Jennifer C. Greenfield is an associate professor and associate dean for Doctoral Education at the University of Denver’s Graduate School of Social Work.

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