Reality Check | 9 common myths about newcomers to Colorado

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DENVER — Over the past year and a half, Colorado has faced unprecedented numbers of new immigrants arriving from countries such as Venezuela, Colombia, Peru and Russia.

Due to its location on the I-25 corridor and proximity to Texas, where many migrants cross into the country — as well as its reputation as a sanctuary city — Denver became one of the cities at the center of the migrant crisis.

In almost two years, it has welcomed 42,000 people who have migrated to the United States.

Rocky Mountain PBS spoke with Laura Lunn, the director of advocacy and litigation at Rocky Mountain Immigrant Advocacy Network (RMAIN); Claudia Villa, a Colorado immigration attorney; and Arthur Wilson, the acting field office director for Colorado and Wyoming’s ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations, to answer your questions and to address common myths of immigration in the Centennial State.

Myth #1 | Migrants who enter the U.S. from the southwest border are “illegal.”

Many of the migrants coming in from the southern border enter the U.S. legally at authorized points of entry, such as Eagle Pass, Texas, Del Rio, Texas, or San Ysidro, California. There, they turn themselves into U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents for processing.

Border Patrol agents conduct preliminary screenings to determine whether the person is eligible to temporarily remain in the U.S. and plead their case in court, whether the person should be detained in a facility, or whether the individual should be removed immediately.

While it is legal to present oneself at an authorized border crossing unannounced, the government has been encouraging individuals to apply via the CBP One app ahead of time and make an appointment.

Those who enter at illegal border crossings — places not designated by the Department of Homeland Security  — are considered illegal entrants.

Myth #2 | Arrivals seeking asylum in the U.S. will be allowed to resettle here long-term.

In 2023, about 1,200 asylum decisions were made in Colorado’s immigration courts, with about 50% of cases granting asylum and 50% denying asylum, according to Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) which collects and tracks immigration data.

In analysis of data from TRAC and various government agencies, Rocky Mountain PBS found that for asylum cases adjudicated in 2022, individuals received similar 50-50 outcomes. In the preceding years from 2018-2021, asylum was denied more frequently — in as many as 75% of cases.

“The courts don't fall under the judicial body of our branches of government. They fall under the executive branch. So they are definitely influenced by politics” said Villa.

“Asylum is the hardest application to win in immigration, bar none,” Villa said. “Immigrants sometimes think, like, ‘I can go and apply for asylum and I’ll be okay, I'll be protected.’ And that's not the reality.”

Asylum seekers must demonstrate that they have suffered persecution or have a well-founded fear of persecution due to their race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group. Once their case reaches court, they must provide evidence and testimony of their persecution and clear a criminal background and security check.

Asylum petitions may get denied due to an incomplete application, a missed appointment, or inconsistencies in testimonies.

They’re also denied if the individual seeking asylum has been to found to have engaged in a terrorist activity or has been convicted of a serious crime, such as selling drugs, sexual assault, prostitution or murder.

Myth #3 | All new immigrants are matched with an attorney who will represent them in immigration court.

New immigrants have the right to hire and pay for their own counsel, but the government will not appoint an attorney to represent them. The right to an attorney belongs to criminal defendants, but does not apply to immigrants facing deportation, which are considered civil proceedings.

There are about 200 immigration attorneys in the state of Colorado and nearly 73,000 immigration cases pending before the state’s courts.

“That's just not enough attorneys to provide 70,000 people with legal counsel,” said Lunn.

“It's untenable. We're drinking from a fire hose. What we're hearing more and more is that even people who have the resources to pay an attorney can't find an attorney to take their case because everybody already has too many cases,” Lunn said.

Of the pending cases in Colorado, only about 10,000 — or 15% of cases — are represented by an attorney. That makes Colorado the state with the third lowest rate of legal representation for immigrants in the country. Only Oklahoma and Idaho have lower rates of legal representation.

Those with Notices to Appear go to immigration court in downtown Denver.
Photo: Andrea Kramar, Rocky Mountain PBS 

“[New immigrants] are not being set up for success, that's for sure,” said Lunn.

“Nonprofits like ours are trying to provide people with as many tools as we can. But the way in which we're doing that is providing people with information at this point, because we can’t take on all of the cases."

Catholic Charities has been running a program helping individuals fill out their asylum applications on a ‘limited representation’ basis, said Villa, but their funding is running out, she said.

RMAIN, where Lunn works, also goes to the Aurora Detention Center and Denver’s immigration court to conduct “Know Your Rights” presentations and provide resources and information to new arrivals.

“The city has provided some assistance. But, really, the great weight of receiving the immigrants has fallen on the nonprofit organizations,” said Villa.

Immigrants who have legal representation are less likely to be expelled from the U.S. From 2018-2024, individuals with attorneys were removed only 31% of the time.

In 2022, the state of Colorado created an Immigration Legal Defense Fund to encourage more legal representation for those going through immigration court. The fund uses state dollars to pay attorneys to provide legal counsel in immigration proceedings, and in April 2024, the state doubled the funding from $330,000 to $700,000 for fiscal year 2024/2025. 

Myth #4 All migrants coming from the southern border and making their way to Colorado are Venezuelan. 

Currently, the majority of new immigrants coming to the U.S. are Venezuelans. Venezuelans make up about 37% of cases pending before Colorado courts. The second and third largest groups with pending court cases in Colorado are Colombians and Mexicans, according to Syracuse University’s TRAC data.

“Venezuelans used to never migrate to the United States,” said Villa. “You're seeing immigration from countries that historically we had not seen. But that's due to what's happening on their home grounds.”

Lunn said RMAIN is seeing an upswing in Colombians, in particular.

“The instability that exists in Venezuela has trickled over the border into Colombia,” she said. “So we're seeing huge upticks in people fleeing terrorist organizations in Colombia that have been able to gain power because of the instability in the region.”

Lunn said RMAIN has also been seeing increases in people arriving from Peru, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Russia — where political dissidents are fleeing the Putin regime.

“When bad things are happening in other countries, we find out through people fleeing and coming here.”

Myth #5 Migrants coming to the U.S. could be working, but they choose not to.

Migrants cannot legally work in the U.S. when they first arrive. Under current federal law, migrants can only apply for work permits 150 days after submitting an asylum application to USCIS or an immigration court.

While migrants may file an asylum application as soon as they arrive in the U.S. —  speeding up the process for work authorization — many don’t because they don’t understand the process.

“A lot of times, they go through a ‘credible fear’ interview at the border and believe they’ve already applied for asylum,” Villa said. “No, they haven’t. It’s just an initial screening.”

As a result, Villa said, many migrants don’t start their asylum application until after their first court date — which can be many months or even years after they arrive. That court date is where they become oriented to U.S. immigration rules and laws. Because of this delay, it could take well over a year for many migrants to legally work in the U.S.

“What we hear all the time is, ‘I just want to be able to work so that I can provide for my family and not have to ask anyone else for help’,” said Lunn.

“So what we see is that people are exposed to wage theft, human trafficking and other kinds of exploitative labor practices as a result of them not being able to work lawfully from the day that they arrive,” she said.

The U.S. Congress is the only entity capable of changing current migrant work eligibility laws, but hasn’t been able to come to a bipartisan agreement.

President Joe Biden has found some workarounds, however. In September 2023, the Biden administration announced that Venezuelans who arrived in the U.S. prior to July 2023 qualify for Temporary Protective Status (TPS) — which allows them to remain in the U.S. for 18 months and quickly apply for work permits.

Additionally, migrants who apply for legal status in the U.S. through the CBP One App — which launched in 2020 — can apply for an expedited work permit if they’ve been granted parole.

The city of Denver has been working hand-in-hand with nonprofits to help these two groups apply for work permits and fast-track their applications, sometimes in as little as one day.

“That’s one of the great things that the city of Denver did,” said Villa. “Getting someone their work permit and stabilization should be a priority.”

Myth #6 | U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) can’t detain anyone in the state of Colorado.

In April 2024, 40% of immigrants in detention facilities across the U.S. were convicted criminals or had pending criminal charges. The remaining 60% did not have criminal records, according to Syracuse University’s TRAC data.

There is one immigration detention facility in Colorado. The facility, privately run by the for-profit GEO Group, which operates prisons and mental health facilities across the U.S, is located in Aurora and holds up to 1,532 individuals. Inside the facility is an ICE office and an immigration court.

Villa said she’s heard of practices at detention centers encouraging individuals to sign voluntary removal orders in order to get released from detention sooner.

“If you want to fight your case, you wind up staying in the detention center for a lot longer period, and that really does psychologically mess with most of the immigrants who are being detained,” Villa said.

“But if they get a removal order right away, they'll be released from detention quicker,” she said. 

The Aurora detention facility holds an average of 974 individuals a day. ICE currently oversees another 3,355 people through its Alternatives to Detention (ATD) program, where ICE monitors them through ankle bracelets with GPS tracking and through regular check-ins over the phone.

There used to be an additional two detention centers located in county jails in Teller and Moffatt Counties, where local law enforcement could rent bed space to ICE. However, in  June 2023, Governor Jared Polis signed a law that forced the practice to end by January of this year. The law eliminated the ability for local county jails in Colorado to detain individuals suspected of immigration violations.

Arthur Wilson, acting field office director for Colorado and Wyoming’s ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations, said that not every noncitizen is a priority for his office.

“We want to expel the myth that we go after everybody,” he said.

“Anyone prior to November 2020 that hasn't committed any crime or is not a public safety threat, national security threat or border security threat — we do not encounter or effectuate an arrest on,” Wilson said.

Migrants rely on local nonprofits for help. At the Changemakers Collective , 350 migrants came to collect clothing donations on one December day. 
Photo: Alexis Kikoen, Rocky Mountain PBS 

Myth #7 | Those that arrive to Colorado are single adults, couples or families with children.

In fiscal year 2023, almost 140,000 unaccompanied minors arrived at the southwest border, according to U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, representing about 5 percent of the total population at the border.

Colorado received about 1,600 unaccompanied children in 2023 and has received an additional 1,100 so far this year.

RMAIN, where Lunn works, started a children’s program in 2014 to address the spike in unaccompanied minors fleeing violence in Central America at the time, and continues to serve children — whether they have  families or are unaccompanied — today.

Lunn said they are currently prioritizing unaccompanied kids over those with families due to the high volume.

“We still can’t serve all the kids who are coming here who don’t have parents,” she said.

Myth #8 | The city of Denver has welcomed more migrants than any other city in the U.S.

To date since December 2022, Denver has taken in 41,500 migrants. According to Mayor Mike Johnston, that is more migrants per capita than any other city in the U.S.

The Common Sense Institute estimates the city (which has paid for shelters, food and transportation) — along with healthcare, education and charitable organizations, spent between $78-$100 million by March 2024.

Earlier this year, the city cut hours at city-run recreation centers and DMVs to help defray costs, but will resume normal operations beginning in June.

Myth #9 | New arrivals to Denver are guaranteed free housing.

Beginning in December 2022, the city funded 14-day hotel room stays for adults and 42-day stays for families. After that, new arrivals were expected to find a more permanent place to live with help from nonprofits or move on to other destinations.

However, this April, Johnston announced he was ending that program in favor of a more intensive approach called Denver Asylum Seekers Program. Now, up to 1,000 individuals who arrived before April 10, 2024 and who do not yet have work permits will be eligible for six months of housing, plus wraparound services and assistance filling out asylum applications.

Wraparound services will focus on job readiness and will include ESL classes, digital literacy classes, industry certifications, and on-the-job-training.

Those who are not eligible for that program will receive shorter shelter stays, capped at 72 hours.

As part of these changes, the city will end its operations in all but one hotel shelter. The city shifted resources as the numbers of new arrivals began dwindling over the past few months, from a high of more than 5,000 in January to a low of under 1,000 new arrivals in April.


Andrea Kramar is the investigative multimedia journalist at Rocky Mountain PBS. Andreakramar@rmpbs.org.