Can Denver live up to its reputation of being a ‘sanctuary city’?

The city’s response to migrant ‘surges’ endangers both newcomers and its long-standing unhoused population.

Some years ago, when I was an aid worker, I lived in Uganda, a landlocked country in East Africa. On paper, the nation was decidedly poor, with an average annual income of only $884 per person. Still, it showed surprising generosity towards those in need, including people who were not technically its own. Refugees in Uganda not only had the right to work, they were given plots of land to live on and farm. In my first month there, I met a Rwandan refugee; I don’t remember her name, but I do remember her dress was the color of a freshly cracked yolk. We stood on her small farm in the shadow of the Kiyebe Mountains, surrounded by rows of onion, corn, heads of cabbage. The 1994 genocide had laid waste to her life, but Uganda’s asylum policies made it possible for her to grow something from the wreckage — something humble, but nourishing nonetheless.


Maybe it comes as no surprise that this small sub-Saharan nation treats its migrants better than America does — though it hasn’t always been that way, nor is it that way across the entire country. As media coverage focuses on migrant detention and deportation, it’s easy to overlook other news: California, for example, has become the first state to make Medicaid available to all low-income residents, including undocumented folks. Colorado, the state I now call home, has passed multiple bills restricting how its agencies, including police, cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcment (ICE). As an immigrant twice over — from India to Canada as a child, Canada to Uganda as an adult, and Uganda to America as a slightly older adult — I felt proud to call Denver my home when those bills passed. But times have changed.

Last month, the city of Denver announced that it would stop providing emergency shelter to undocumented people. This decision came on the heels of over 9,000 people from Central and South America arriving in Denver since December 2022, leading Mayor Michael B. Hancock to declare a city-wide state of emergency. Many of the migrants who entered through the U.S.-Mexico border were asylum seekers, and Denver’s reputation as a “sanctuary city” seems to have been a factor in drawing them here. Initially, the city lived up to this reputation, converting recreation centers to overnight shelters. But its recent decision to shelter only those who have been processed by the Department of Homeland Security will exclude a staggering 25% to 50% of the new arrivals.

Victoria Oropeza rests her face on the stomach of her father, William, as the two migrants from Venezuela wait in line for food from a food truck at a migrant processing center this month in Denver, Colorado. The two, along with her mother and brother, traveled for 7 months to get to Denver, and planned to continue to New York City. Under the city’s new policy, individuals may be able to find housing at an emergency overnight shelter, but it will be harder for families with several children to find shelter.
Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post via Getty Images

In recent months, the numbers of new migrants leveled off to 20-30 per day. But with the expiration of the Trump-era Title 42 policy last week, they’ve jumped to triple digits again, with an average of 250 arriving in Denver daily since early May. Title 42 — widely denounced as inhumane by human rights activists — allowed immigration authorities to turn people back without even giving them a chance to apply for asylum. Its expiration was always expected to increase the number of migrants, though many will try to enter without encountering DHS, and with good reason: The horrific conditions in detention centers have been well-publicized, as have the hardships and violence faced by asylum seekers forced to wait in Mexico for their applications to be heard. Meanwhile, being documented brings fears of its own, including the fear that immigration authorities who become aware of an immigrant’s presence may deport them for the slightest infringement.

 “It makes it a very difficult situation to tell a family, look them in the face and say, ‘Sorry, I don’t know where to put you. I don’t know where you’re going to sleep tonight.’”

When I moved to the U.S. on a work visa, I lived in fear of anything that might violate my standing as a “good immigrant”: a speeding ticket, an overdue bill, a job loss. The prospect of not having my visa renewed and being forced to leave the country I now thought of as home was not devastating — returning to Canada was not the worst scenario — but it was still sad. And the fear moved into my body and stayed. Whenever my boss lobbed yet another racist remark — whether at me, or at no one in particular — my fear kept me silent; I let her words hang in the air, curdling it like milk.

Now, instead of preparing to help those fleeing situations of real terror — often caused by decades of exploitative U.S. foreign policy — Denver seems to be closing ranks, refusing to share any more of its abundant resources with people it does not regard as its own. It does this even as it fails many of its long-term residents, especially those who are unhoused.


Petar Frakes cleans up an encampment of unhoused people in Denver after he and fellow residents were unsuccessfully ousted by city workers on April 13, 2023. The city failed to properly notify the residents ahead of time, which resulted in a partially completed effort. Residents of the site said that workers wreaked havoc on their homes, scattering their belongings across the sidewalk before the work was abandoned.
AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post via Getty Images


Well before the migrants came seeking sanctuary, tent cities surrounded Denver’s Capitol building, making a mockery of a government that claims to care for its people. It was a sight that shocked me when I first moved to the city. In East Africa, even the poorest people had networks of family or friends to call on, sleeping in someone’s shed or squeezing into an already crowded bedroom. Poverty existed there on a greater scale than in America, but it lacked the isolation and stigma that accompanies poverty here. I hadn’t seen people sleeping on the street in years — not until I came to the U.S.

Now, Denver’s refusal to shelter undocumented migrants not only risks pushing even more people into homelessness, it increases the competition for services among those already in need of housing. Richard Molina, a peer navigator at St. Francis Center, a daytime shelter, said the city’s decision is going to leave newly arriving migrants with few options. Though individuals may be able to find housing at an emergency overnight shelter, this will be harder for families with several children. “It makes it a very difficult situation to tell a family, look them in the face and say, ‘Sorry, I don’t know where to put you,’” he said. “‘I don’t know where you’re going to sleep tonight.’” Molina’s voice caught as he spoke.

Given all we know about migrants’ torturous journeys to America, Denver’s failure to offer them that most fundamental of human rights — the right to shelter — is nothing short of inhumane. Though the city argues its resources have been stretched to the breaking point, with $16 million spent on the response to date, and federal funding available only for supporting documented migrants, this, too, appears absurd considering Denver’s wealth.

Last year, Bloomberg reported that Denver was “a magnet for the affluent” with “one of the hottest luxury housing markets in the country.” In 2023, the city’s budget was $1.66 billion, of which the largest tranche of $611 million (or 36%) was designated for “public safety,” mostly funding for police forces. Given the mixed outcomes of an expanding police presence, it’s hard not to wonder why more of this money isn’t spent on services that offer a greater — and more obvious — public good: housing people who have no home to call their own, for example. If we want to keep our streets “crime free,” then giving people options other than sleeping on those streets seems like the minimum we could do.

Migrants at a makeshift shelter in Denver, Colorado, this January. Last month, the city of Denver announced that it would stop providing emergency shelter to undocumented people.
Hyoung Chang/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Raksha Vasudevan is an economist and writer based in Denver. Her work has appeared in LitHub, The Los Angeles Review of Books, NYLON and more. We welcome reader letters. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.