Why Denver and why now? We wondered as we watched in early December as the quiet arrival of migrants from our southern border increased suddenly and noticeably. We watched with worry as they arrived to our city and were greeted with bone-chilling temperatures, full shelters and a city government on its heels, working overtime to welcome them the best it could.
But Denver wasn’t the only city receiving men, women, families with children, people fleeing violence, climate disruption and economic collapse abroad. And it wasn’t Denver’s first time seeing a wave of cross-cultural migration. When life becomes untenable where you are, “somewhere else” becomes an answer — even at great cost and risk, without knowing what will come next.
We don’t have to look far back to see times when our city welcomed people taking such life-changing, risky journeys. History Colorado’s Colorado Encyclopedia chronicles Denver’s modern experience with these earlier eras:
· Waves of recruitment for immigrant labor largely drove waves of migration in the late 1800s into the early 1900s, including eastern European Jewish communities that formed in several neighborhoods of Denver.
· The Great Migration from 1910-20s brought Black residents from southern states to Denver. Our response was not a welcoming one, with the rise of the Ku Klux Klan among Denver’s political leadership.
· Many Japanese Americans were forced from their West Coast homes into internment camps — more than 2,000 — then relocated to Denver from 1942-1944.
· Racially restrictive covenants meant that more than 75% of Denver’s Black residents lived in Five Points by 1929, the World-War II era brought another wave of newcomers and Five Points’ Black population doubled by 1950 with former servicemembers and others.
Housing crunch? Denver had one in the post-war era, too. Concerns about language barriers and cultural differences? Europeans didn’t speak English when they came to build railroads or work in meat packing plants. City resources? Denver’s funds are not unlimited, but surely the city’s economic success of recent years puts us in one of the strongest positions we’ve ever been in. What about jobs and our economy? Today, we have a relatively low unemployment rate, and employers in construction, restaurants and other fields are still looking to fill positions. And every person who works in our community also buys goods and services, stimulating more economic activity that grows the pie, pays sales taxes on those purchases and funds infrastructure and services in our community.
While many may be passing through to other destinations, we can and should prioritize continuing to welcome and support those who stay. They will become a part of our city’s fabric just as those who’ve come before. This will require even more creativity on housing, legal support, job connections and community integration than we’ve brought to bear to support Ukrainian and Afghan refugees, but we are Denver and we can.
But Denver shouldn’t act alone. The United States House of Representatives passed a federal immigration reform bill that would have created a path for individuals to apply for residency, work visas and a more orderly system at the border. It. Does. Not. Have. To. Be. This. Way. The Senate failed to act. But those with their backs against the wall and no options don’t give up hope. So we can’t give up the fight for comprehensive immigration reform either.
Robin Kniech is an at-large member of Denver City Council. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 720-337-7712.