Denver Blames Congress as City Cuts Services Amid Budget Crisis Citing Illegal Immigrants

Mayor says Congress is the problem, not illegal immigrants arriving in Denver.
Denver Blames Congress as City Cuts Services Amid Budget Crisis Citing Illegal Immigrants
Denver Mayor Mike Johnston speaks during a news conference at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC, Jan. 18, 2024. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Caden Pearson

Denver Mayor Mike Johnston, a Democrat, announced the first of many budget cuts on Friday to address a $180 million shortfall caused by the illegal immigrant crisis.

The city needs to cut around $18 million per month from public services throughout 2024 in order to fund the costs of providing services to illegal immigrants arriving in the city, the mayor told reporters. The $180 million budget gap was revealed in early January.

The first two city departments impacted are the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) and Parks and Recreation. However, Mr. Johnston warned that more austerity measures were coming and wouldn’t be “fun” either.

The DMV will no longer process vehicle registrations in person, moving those services online via mail and rotating weekly DMV closures starting on March 4. DMV kiosks will be in grocery stores and will print registration stickers immediately, and these will also service drivers who need emissions tests.

Starting on Feb. 20, Denver Recreation Centers will begin to reduce their operating hours due to budget cuts. Regional Centers that are open seven days a week will only be open six days a week, while the ones that operate for six days a week will continue to remain open for the same number of days but with reduced hours of operation. Additionally, there will be a 25 percent cut in summer programming in parks.

A crop of new, younger hires will no longer be employed; instead, existing staff will rotate, and seasonal workers will lose their jobs. During the Q&A session, the mayor clarified that layoffs were not imminent for current employees but noted potential impacts on hourly workers and reductions in summer hires.

The city will also cut costs by forgoing planting annual spring and summer flower beds.

Mayor Says ‘Shared Sacrifice’ Needed to Support Illegal Immigrants

Mr. Johnston said that the cuts would not be the last or the “hardest” as the city grapples with the more than 40,000 illegal immigrants who have arrived over the past year.

At the top of the press conference, the mayor framed the budget cuts as a “plan for shared sacrifice” by a city that is trying to uphold its values in a difficult situation.

The mayor stressed that “shared sacrifice” was needed as the city attempted to help both “newcomers” illegally crossing the border and taxpayers who expected certain services in the city.

“This is what good people do in hard situations as you try to manage your way to serve all of your values. Our values are: we want to continue to be a city that does not have women and children out on the street in intense and 20° weather.

“And we also want to be a city that provides all of our constituents with the services they deserve and the services that they expect. We want to do both of those. We have to find a way to deliver shared sacrifice to try to manage those values in the road ahead,” the mayor said at a press briefing.

Although the budget gap was revealed at a Jan. 2 council meeting, the mayor announced the first cuts in the wake of the failed bipartisan supplemental spending bill that sought to tie funding to address the U.S. border crisis with aid for Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan.

Mr. Johnston said that the failed measure meant that no federal funding would help the city bridge the $180 million budget gap, which he indicated is needed to help newly arrived illegal immigrants according to the city’s values.

Mayor Says Congress Is the Problem, Not Illegal Immigrants

Denver’s mayor expressed his pride in the city’s efforts to help illegal immigrants and stressed that they weren’t the problem. Instead, he stressed that Congress needs to take responsibility and manage the ever-increasing number of migrants illegally crossing the border and claiming asylum.

Mr. Johnston frontloaded his press briefing with criticism of Republicans in Washington over a blocked bipartisan border bill, indicating that its failure to clear Congress was why he was making cuts in the Colorado city.

Mr. Johnston said a resolution in Congress would have helped ease the burden on the city to provide services for illegal immigrants, whom he referred to as “newcomers.”

Republicans blocked the bill, saying it did not do enough to secure the U.S. border. Speaking on this, the mayor said, “They would have rather seen it fail so they could exacerbate these problems, extend the suffering of the American people, and for newcomers for their own election chances this November.”

Mr. Johnston noted that the bill included provisions to enable illegal immigrants to enter the country with work authorization, which would come with federal resources attached that he said would help cities like Denver successfully integrate them.

“Without any federal support, without any work authorization, without changes to policy, we are going to have to make changes in terms of what we can do with our city budget and what we can do in terms of support for newcomers when they arrive,” Mr. Johnston said.

He said departments have been asked to identify how they would make budget reductions.

“We were hopeful that with federal support, those reductions might be smaller than we initially feared,” Mr. Johnston said. “Now, without federal support, we have to start operating towards that $180 million gap.”