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Big city mayors ask White House for help with migrant influx

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Cities across the U.S. are struggling to keep up with growing numbers of migrants who need housing and are looking for work. Last week, a delegation of mayors, including those from New York and Chicago, went to the White House to ask President Biden for help. Leading the group was Denver's new mayor, Mike Johnston. Colorado Public Radio's Kevin Beaty reports.

KEVIN BEATY, BYLINE: Denver has spent millions to shelter migrants at rec centers and in hotels for two to four weeks per person or family. They've put up more than 26,000 people in the last year.

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #1: Jerry, this is the kids right here.

BEATY: Snow was still on the ground from the city's first winter storm when police officers arrived at this cluster of tents set up across the street from one of these hotels.

CARLOS ALBERTO JEPEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #1: Two kids and his wife.

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #2: Two kids. They don't have a place to go.

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #1: They staying in a tent here?

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER #2: Not yet.

BEATY: Carlos Alberto Jepez and his wife and two kids traveled for months from Venezuela to get here. Jepez said they had to move out of the hotel this morning because officials discovered they were hiding a little dog in their room. It's against the rules.

MYSHELL SANTANA: (Speaking Spanish).

BEATY: His wife, Myshell Santana, says their 8-year-old has been suffering from depression, and this little animal is all that comforts him. The couple wants to give their kids a better life. They just didn't think it would be this hard.

JEPEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

BEATY: "We don't have anything," Jepez tells the officers. "I didn't come to beg on the street. I came to work." Inland cities like Denver and Chicago have been struggling to pay for accommodations, like this old hotel, because of the sheer number of people coming to the U.S. In the last year, Customs and Border Patrol agents had over a million more encounters with migrants trying to enter the country than the year before. Denver's mayor, Mike Johnston, knows people are falling through holes in this safety net.

MIKE JOHNSTON: We're keenly aware of that. We don't want kids out there on the streets at any time or certainly out on the streets in the cold. And so we'll continue to focus on how to make sure we can provide the services there and how to balance, obviously, the need to be welcoming to newcomers and to make sure we have the resources to pay for other critical city services.

BEATY: The mayors who went to the White House last week didn't get a meeting with the president, but they did speak with his staff. Federal budget negotiations are coming up, and they want Biden to more than triple the cash he's already promised to help the cities pay for shelter and services.

JOHNSTON: You know, we think the current path is unsustainable.

BEATY: Johnston says Denver alone is on track to spend a hundred million dollars on this by next year.

JOHNSTON: We're really grateful the president has come out with a supplemental budget that had 1.4 billion for services for cities. We think that number needs to be closer to 5 billion.

BEATY: The mayors are also asking to speed up work authorizations for asylum-seekers. Employers need workers, Johnson says, and new arrivals want jobs. Right now, most people who apply for asylum must wait at least six months before they're allowed to work. The nation's immigration laws haven't been updated in decades.

JONALBER FERNANDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

BEATY: Jonalber Fernandez also left Venezuela this summer, fleeing corruption. Now he's waiting for a judge to hear his asylum case, but he was booted from the motel the same day as Jepez. He wants to work.

FERNANDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

BEATY: "What I have is just $3," he says. He's hoping he'll find a job and a place to settle down. For now, he's out of a place to stay, and he's not sure where he'll go next. For NPR News, I'm Kevin Beaty in Denver. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Kevin Beaty