Cities Are Yanking the Welcome Mat From Under Migrants’ Feet

Cities like Denver, New York, and Chicago are backtracking on promises to take care of the migrants sent their way by Texas governor Greg Abbott. While the programs dry up, immigrants’ urgent need for basic help remains.

People pack and prepare to leave the largest migrant encampment in Denver, Colorado, on January 3, 2024. (Hyoung Chang / Denver Post via Getty Images)

Jhonna Ledezma nearly died as she and her family traversed the infamous Darien Gap — an imposing jungle terrain with swamps, steep mountains, and muddy trails that migrants use to cross between Colombia and Panama — on their way to the United States from Ecuador in 2023.

The Ledezmas were somewhere outside the Pinogana District and El Real corregimientos when Jhonna fell into the Chucunaque River, a long S-shaped river in southern Panama known for harboring poisonous snakes, crocodiles, and armed drug traffickers. Ledezma and her family had been walking for several days without food or water. They were attempting to cross a steep muddy path when her tired legs gave out. She remembers being too weary to swim as the cold river water washed over her face and body.

Ledezma’s husband watched in horror as her body sank into the river. He left their two children — a seven-year-old daughter and a five-year-old son who suffers from microtia — on the riverbank and rushed to save his wife from drowning. Ledezma’s husband said he grabbed her by her hair and pulled her out of the water. She was shaking as she reemerged from the water. “I thought that was it for me,” Ledezma told Jacobin in Spanish.

For the next several months, the family inched through Panama into Costa Rica and eventually made it to Mexico before crossing the border into Texas. The family was then detained by immigration officials for about a week before they were put on a bus from El Paso to Denver, Ledezma said. “We’ve had many setbacks on this trip, but as I say, God knows why he brought us here,” she said.

The Ledezmas are just a few of the more than 250,000 migrants from South and Central America who have crossed the southern border into the United States since 2022. That total is a staggering increase from January 2020, when the US Customs and Border Patrol counted just over 16,000 crossings, according to federal data. Texas governor Greg Abbott rerouted most of these migrants to cities like Denver, Chicago, and New York City, a strategy that cost state taxpayers roughly $124 million, according to an investigation by local news station KXAN.

But instead of receiving humane services and support, many migrants — Ledezma and her family included — have experienced the cruel underbelly of America’s social services system. The system requires individuals who need services to navigate the systems largely on their own, even in cases where cultural barriers such as language may hinder them. That inherent flaw has proved costly for migrant families like the Ledezmas who are simply pursuing safety and stability for their family. “We don’t know where to go or who to turn to for help,” Ledezma said.

The US social services system for immigrants and refugees includes a wide range of federal, state, and local programs. Typically, the system distributes services to immigrants for three months, placing them on welfare to help them buy necessities like food and clothing. To deal with the recent influx, cities like Denver, Chicago, and New York initially offered migrants the ability to stay in shelters for up to six months while they tried to decrease the backlog of work permit applications. Denver opened multiple shelters for the more than 40,000 migrants that arrived in the city.

But these measures have proved costly, causing politicians and local leaders to change their tune. Ledezma said her family was placed in one of Denver’s shelters for migrants about two weeks after they arrived. Then, city officials announced in February 2024 that they were cutting recreation center hours and Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) services to pay for the additional services migrants received. Not long after that announcement, Denver officials began begging migrants to move on to other shelters.

“The opportunities are over,” Andrés Carrera, Denver’s migrant communications rep, told shelter residents in a video obtained by local news station 9News. “New York gives you more. Chicago gives you more. So I suggest you go there where there is longer-term shelter. There are also more job opportunities there.” Denver has also sent representatives to the Texas-Mexico border to ask migrants to stop coming to the city.

Shortly after this change of heart, Ledezma said city workers began harassing her and other migrants at the shelter. Some would rummage through their bags. Others would say xenophobic things to migrants, she said. “I would almost rather live on the streets because these people treat us so badly,” Ledezma added.

Chicago’s and New York’s warm welcome has also begun to cool. In mid-March, Chicago began limiting migrant stays in city-run shelters to thirty days. Mayor Eric Adams told the popular radio show the Breakfast Club in early April that he would have turned migrants away from the city if he had the legal authority to do so. “When people look at the migrant and asylum seekers that are here, we didn’t call people to come here, they were sent here by Gov. Abbott,” Adams said.

For immigrant families like the Ledezmas, the stakes are high. A 2022 survey from the Urban Institute found that half of migrant or immigrant families reported facing challenges while enrolling in public benefits. Nearly 40 percent of respondents added that they did not receive their benefits on time. These hurdles are just some of the reasons why immigrant families experience poverty at nearly twice the rate of native-born families.

To sociologist Heba Gowayed, who teaches at the CUNY Hunter College & Graduate Center, experiences like these demonstrate that the US social services system can make displaced people often feel unwelcome. “These are not policies that recognize the humanity of people seeking refuge,” Gowayed told Boston University’s research publication the Brink “These policies fall short of investing in people’s skills and possibilities and in recognizing their personhood.”

Cities are citing budgetary concerns as they roll up the welcome mat, and there can be no denying that they are facing real costs and constraints. What’s left unsaid, however, is that when the rubber hits the road, the survival of immigrants is of lesser importance than other municipal priorities.

Rather than designing our social safety net to prevent poverty and great suffering on principle, we have a patchwork system riddled with means-testing and crisscrossed with red tape, forcing people to weave through the labyrinth on their own and prove they belong to the right population. This task is difficult enough for native-born individuals. It can feel Sisyphean for people who do not speak the language or understand the system they are trying to navigate. Means-testing also makes programs themselves vulnerable, and populations can go from right to wrong overnight.

When necessary programs for immigrants are cut even in the face of extreme need, it sends the message that the lives of immigrants like the Ledezmas are not as important as native-born lives.