Last month, 55 migrants from the U.S. southern border arrived in Denver in the middle of the night. It was an emergency transport that gave local advocates little time to receive them, but more than 100 volunteers and three churches stepped up in just a few days to give the group food and shelter before they dispersed to other parts of the country. This week, those advocates announced that Mile High Ministries will take on a coordinator to manage more buses full of people on a regular and better-planned basis. Four more busloads — carrying a total of up to 220 more people — are expected to arrive in Denver in the coming weeks.
Each day, hundreds of people are released by federal immigration authorities into towns on the border’s U.S. side. Many have declared asylum and are free to stay in the country until their cases are heard. Most have family or friends living in the U.S. that they plan to stay with until their dates in federal court. But many have trouble getting flights or buses coordinated when they’re released, often without phones or much more than the clothing on their backs. Humanitarian organizations in Texas and New Mexico have helped thousands of people reach loved ones, but thousands more remain waiting for assistance. The buses bound for Denver are one way advocates hope to ease the pressure of many in need of help in those towns.
Jeff Johnsen, executive director of Mile High Ministries, said his organization will act a fiscal sponsor for local relief efforts. Their nonprofit status means they can accept donations and funnel the money into paying a new half-time coordinator position. They’ve raised about $10,000 so far to pay the coordinator, and they expect to hire someone within the next week.
The coordinator will act as a liaison between the border organizations and those in Denver. That person will be responsible for making sure needs are met when migrants arrive, and that churches offering bed space and volunteers offering to cook hot meals do so efficiently. The coordinator will also seek out new donations – cash, clothing and food – and help manage distribution of those items.
Johnsen said coordination efforts between Denver advocates and service providers has been an informal process up until now. They’ve just been moving to meet needs as they appear.
“There’s nothing that concrete of a plan,” he said. “It’s just a compassionate movement.”
But he expects the process will become refined as the new coordinator steps into the role and more people in buses make their way north.
Hundreds of Denverites have expressed interest in lending a hand.
Sarah Jackson, who runs the Casa de Paz hospitality house for people exiting the private immigration jail in Aurora, said she had to turn a lot of volunteers away when the first bus arrived. There were more people offering to help than there were jobs to fill.
Casa de Paz has attracted more and more volunteers as deportations and detentions have ramped up in recent years. Now that operators of the Aurora jail have increased their bed space, there’s been record numbers of migrants dumped onto the street. In April, 2018, the Casa hosted 23 people. Last April, that number had grown to 103.
“Especially in the past three months, we’ve seen a very big increase,” she said.
But assistance from the community has grown to meet her needs as well as those arising from people coming straight from the border. A training for new Casa volunteers last Saturday packed the meeting room of a Highland church.
Casa’s volunteer base, as well as those signing up to help through other organizations, are generally trained and ready to help when new buses arrive from Las Cruses or El Paso.
Jennifer Piper, a coordinator with the American Friends Service Committee, said the “most exciting part” is that many of these volunteers are in their 20s and 30s and represent a new generation of service-minded helpers. Many are driven by their faiths and participation in religious services around the city.
The volunteers’ time will be managed by Mile High Ministries’ new coordinator, who will also work with the Denver’s immigrant and refugee commission to leverage city resources.
Jamie Torres is the commission’s current manager, though she will be replaced in July when she takes her newly-won seat at Denver City Council. For now, she said, her office is working with the advocate group to secure storage space for donated goods that have poured in since the first bus arrived. She’s also helping the group communicate with the Denver Police Department so that visible patrols will be present around churches when migrants are sleeping inside them.
Piper said the coalition is keen not to reveal the places migrants will stay or the times they’ll be there. While she feels Denver is a fairly friendly city, she worries that anti-immigrant protesters or troublemakers might show up to harass or harm guests and volunteers.
Johnsen said he hopes the new coordinator won’t be in a job for long. Conditions at the border that have required such a position break his heart, but he said it’s up to the federal government to address them. As they wait for a political solution, his ministry and its army of helpers are prepared to house people as long as they keep coming.
“This is the refugee crisis of our world and now its coming right to our city,” he said. “There’s just no way we can not respond.”