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Denver set up temporary shelters for recent migrants. Now the mayor wants to close the sites

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

More than 4,000 migrants who recently crossed into the U.S. from Mexico have arrived in Denver over the last month. It's prompted the city to declare a state of emergency. It converted two city recreation centers into temporary shelters. Denver's mayor now wants to close those shelters, but it is not clear where the migrants can go. Colorado Public Radio's Kevin Beaty reports.

KEVIN BEATY, BYLINE: Denver city employee Lisa Gibbs is in charge of the shelter in west Denver. It's busy.

LISA GIBBS: We'll get walk-ups all day. We are close to capacity today.

BEATY: Denver started converting rec centers and another city building to temporary spaces for migrants when Denver's regular homeless shelters became inundated in December. Gibbs and her colleagues stepped away from the regular city jobs and have been pulling 12-hour shifts. People like Kevin, who's from Venezuela, are appreciative. He declined to say his last name, worrying identifying himself could compromise his asylum claim.

KEVIN: (Speaking Spanish).

BEATY: "I feel safe thanks to the support of the people who are having us here," he says. "I arrived here without clothes, with nothing, and here they've given me clothes, food, where to stay when I go to my destination. I'm barely 22 years old, and I want to get my papers out and do things perfectly if God allows me." City employees are really proud to give people a soft landing here, but it's cost Denver more than a million dollars so far. Mayor Michael Hancock has been pleading with nonprofit and faith organizations to help. He expects migrants will keep coming for months. Last week the state tried to solve Denver's problem by chartering buses to take migrants where they want to go out of state. Selena Reyes has been helping book those trips.

SELENA REYES: I would say that the majority of our guests are traveling outside of Denver - New York, Chicago, Florida - as of right now.

BEATY: Officials won't say how many buses they chartered, but on Saturday, New York Mayor Eric Adams and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot sent a joint letter respectfully demanding they stop. Jared Polis, Colorado's Democratic governor, stopped chartering buses in response but said, quote, "we will not prevent anyone who wants to leave from going to their preferred destination." And migrants are still being offered tickets out of state on regular commercial buses. Denver's mayor, Michael Hancock, says he gets it.

MICHAEL HANCOCK: I probably would've responded exactly how Mayor Lightfoot responded. We're just not equipped for this sort of thing, and it's a result of the inactivity and lack of leadership by the federal government.

BEATY: Hancock says Denver's rec centers need to go back to being rec centers and not migrant shelters. He's hopeful the new policy President Biden announced last week will help. It aims to reduce migrant numbers by quickly expelling migrants from Nicaragua, Cuba and Haiti who enter the U.S. via Mexico.

HANCOCK: The administration is showing leadership and recognizing the undue burden on cities and states with the surge that has occurred here.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Trabajo es work.

BEATY: Back in the shelter, a city employee helps people with some basic English. Many people here made a dangerous trek from Venezuela to escape violence and poverty. They're trying to find a better life. Amelia Iraheta has heard a lot of their stories.

AMELIA IRAHETA: People are not just making this decision because it seems like something to do, right? It's a life-or-death situation for a lot of people.

BEATY: She said word has spread that Denver is a welcoming place to land, even if just for a little while.

IRAHETA: We've seen a lot of people here who are telling us things like, oh, I texted my cousin, or, I'm part of a WhatsApp group that told me to come here. And the word is getting out that Denver seems to be the place that people are now coming.

BEATY: Migrant arrivals in the city have dropped by about half from 200 or more a day. But the city is still sheltering more than a thousand a night, and no one knows how long the surge that started last month will continue. Denver is negotiating with the local Catholic archdiocese to shelter migrants so its rec centers can go back to hosting workouts and basketball games. For NPR News, I'm Kevin Beaty in Denver.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELHAE SONG, "KNOW") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kevin Beaty