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Associated Press

Denver launches ambitious migrant program, breaking from the short-term shelter approach

Dallenis Martinez talks about her journey to American while waiting to attend an orientation session for recent immigrants Monday, May 20, 2024, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

DENVER (AP) — In a hotel conference room in Denver, Dallenis Martinez attended orientation with hundreds of other migrants Monday for the city's new, ambitious migrant support program, which includes six month apartment stays and intensive job preparation for those who can't yet legally work.

It's an about-face from strategies Denver, New York City and Chicago have used as the cities scrambled to support thousands of migrants and slashed budgets. The largely improvised support strategies have included days- to weeks-long shelter stays or bus tickets to send migrants elsewhere.

Now, Martinez, 28, and her two young kids, along with some 650 others in Denver, are being set up with an apartment with six months of rental, food and utility assistance, a free computer, a prepaid cell phone and metro bus passes.

Then, the city working in coordination with several nonprofits plan to provide courses on English language, computers, financial literacy, and workers rights, while also assisting migrants in getting credentialed in specific industries, like construction, retail, hospitality, healthcare and early childhood education. Martinez said she will take any job to support her kids.

The support will also include help with the paperwork for asylum applications, and eventually work authorization.

The goal of the new program is to act as a buffer for new arrivals who have to wait six months for a work permit after applying for asylum under federal law, using that time to prepare migrants for their new life.

“This is investing in people to set them up to be independent and thrive,” said Sarah Plastino, who’s overseeing the program. “We know that when we set people up for success, people really do succeed.”

The city expects to enroll 800 migrants in the coming months, though only those who don’t yet qualify for a work permit can enter this program.

Martinez, who's from Venezuela but was living in Peru when she started her journey north, didn't know she'd end up in a program like this. She didn't even know what the orientation was about when she first took a seat.

Martinez, who travelled with her 11-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter, arrived in the U.S. with nothing. On the border of Guatemala and Mexico, she was robbed of the little money she had. Then, it happened again, and she had to hide in a river with her kids for two nights.

“I was hungry, cold and scared,” said Martinez, who turned herself in to U.S. immigration soon after crossing the border. “I couldn't take it anymore.”

Halfway through the orientation, Martinez was excited.

“Faith is the last thing you lose,” she said, a smile broadening on her face. “I feel more hope with this program."

The mood was upbeat in the Denver Quality Inn; where most who attended the orientation were staying. The city has rented out several hotels to support the some 42,000 migrants who've arrived since the beginning of 2023. Now, the hotels are shuttered or winding down as the number of new migrants drops.

Over the last year, new arrivals strained the city's resources, as they did in Chicago and New York City, prompting the mayors to slash city budgets after unsuccessfully asking for more federal aid from President Joe Biden.

“We were hemorrhaging money. We had over 5,000 people a day in our shelter system, and it was completely financially unsustainable," said Plastino. "We knew we had to make a shift from reactive to proactive.”

New York City officials said 197,100 immigrants have made their way there. Some 65,500 are currently in shelters. Since a federally-sponsored Asylum Application Help Center started assisting with immigration applications, some 50,000 applications have been submitted, including for asylum, work permits and other forms of immigration relief.

Even while Denver's new program is intensive, Plastino said it's still more cost effective.

The city’s costs for supporting migrants will be roughly half of what they had initially expected in January. Services like recreation centers will open once again after their funding was sliced to help afford the city's previous migrant housing strategy.

Renting hotel rooms and paying for premade meals is more expensive than providing rental support for an apartment on the market and food assistance for grocery stores, Plastino said, adding, “It’s also just the right thing to do.”

___

Bedayn is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

People queue up to attend an orientation session for recent immigrants, Monday, May 20, 2024, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
People queue up to enter an orientation session for recent immigrants, Monday, May 20, 2024, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
Brittany Gonzalez, front, speaks while her partner, Robinson San Juan, holds the couple's 1-year-old daughter, Triana Cataleya San Juan, during an orientation session for recent immigrants Monday, May 20, 2024, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
One-year-old Triana Cataleya San Juan sleeps on the lap of her father, Robinson, as he listens during an orientation session for recent immigrants, Monday, May 20, 2024, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
A volunteer checks in an attendee during an orientation session for recent immigrants, Monday, May 20, 2024, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
A participant is directed to a room during an orientation session for recent immigrants, Monday, May 20, 2024, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
Two-year-old Rodrigo Guacapan plays with his toy vehicles as his parents attend an an orientation session for recent immigrants, Monday, May 20, 2024, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
Two-year-old Rodrigo Guacapan runs his toy vehicles on the wall as his parents attend an orientation session for recent immigrants Monday, May 20, 2024, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
A worker checks over the paperwork for a participant during an orientation session for recent immigrants, Monday, May 20, 2024, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
The Guacapan family arrives for an orientation session for recent immigrants, Monday, May 20, 2024, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
A man is greeted by a volunteer during an orientation session for recent immigrants, Monday, May 20, 2024, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
One-year-old Alexa is cradled by her mother as they wait to attend an orientation session for recent immigrants, Monday, May 20, 2024, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)