More Cities Feel Strain as Migrants Relocate When Aid Runs Out

The bright orange fliers from the State of Utah were blunt.

“There is no room in shelters,” the advisory warns migrants contemplating travel to Utah. “No hotels for you.”

It continues: “Housing is hard to find and expensive. Food banks are at capacity.”

Confronted with a swelling number of migrants who have strained its resources, Utah in recent days has begun urging newcomers at the border and in the United States to “consider another state.”

It is the latest sign of the challenges facing migrants and the communities where they hope to settle. As more people leave their initial destinations in search of better work and stable housing, more cities and towns are struggling to keep up.

By the time Utah began warning migrants not to come, Carmen Selene and Cleodis Alvorado were already here, along with thousands of other migrants who have made their way to Utah in recent months from other U.S. cities.

After traveling to the Texas border from Venezuela with their two sons, Ms. Selene and Mr. Alvorado crossed into the United States last September and were soon on a bus chartered by the state of Texas. Bound for Denver, the couple expected that Mr. Alvorado would quickly find a job and they would begin building a new life. But like so many of the other migrants arriving in the United States, Mr. Alvorado could not work legally and was competing for odd jobs with other migrants in the same predicament.

When their hotel stay, paid for by the city of Denver, ran out, the family ended up on another bus, this one headed to Salt Lake City, thought to be a welcoming destination, thanks to plentiful jobs and the deep influence of Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

So far, though, it has been the same sort of challenges, and it could get harder as more people make their way to Utah. Some days, Mr. Alvorado manages to pick up work off the books painting homes and hanging drywall. Other days, nothing. “We have enough money to feed ourselves, but not to pay rent,” Ms. Selene, 24, said outside a motel room in Midvale, just outside Salt Lake City.

The number of migrants crossing the southern border has fallen in recent months. And, on June 5, President Biden unveiled a policy that empowers the U.S. authorities to swiftly deport many people who enter the country illegally.

But an untold number are on the move again after trying to establish themselves in New York, Chicago, Denver and other Democrat-run cities that initially welcomed migrants. When assistance ran out in those cities and the migrants could not find jobs, they moved to places like Salt Lake City, Seattle and even a tiny town in Montana, often aided by bus or plane tickets paid for by the cities they were leaving.

Katie Rane, executive director of No More a Stranger Foundation, a Utah nonprofit group that has been providing legal assistance to migrants, said her organization had worked with migrants arriving from Colorado, California, Illinois and New Jersey.

“They don’t know anyone, and they have no money,” she said.

Utah is trying to dissuade migrants from heading to the state by distributing a flier at the border and in the interior that says that they won’t find shelter or other assistance.

The migrants are unable to secure jobs unless they obtain work permits. To become eligible for the permits, they must apply for asylum, a process that typically requires a lawyer and then at least a 150-day wait. Without steady jobs, they remain dependent on charity to get by, as Mr. Alvorado’s family does.

Utah officials said they were not keeping a tally of arrivals. But the number of new cases filed in the immigration court in Salt Lake City, a key indicator of the size of the migrant population, jumped nearly eightfold between 2021 and 2023, to 21,0745 from 2,676, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University, which collects the data.

Nearly 19,000 cases were filed in the first seven months of the 2024 fiscal year, and that total does not include migrants whose cases are still logged in the cities where they first arrived.

Gov. Spencer Cox has championed the contributions of immigrants in Utah, and last year he called for states to be allowed to sponsor workers from abroad and from the ranks of asylum seekers already in the country to ensure the state’s long-term prosperity.

But the Republican governor, who is seeking re-election, has talked a tougher line on immigration ahead of the primary on June 25 against State Representative Phil Lyman.

While acknowledging that Utah has been “struggling” with migrant arrivals, Governor Cox made a point of saying that the burden was being shouldered by municipalities, local nonprofit groups and faith-based organizations, not the state government.

“To be clear, Utah is not spending any state resources to house or provide other basic services for illegal immigrants or asylum seekers,” he said.

Impoverished Venezuelans escaping the financial ruin of their oil-rich nation have accounted for most of the arrivals. Unlike Mexicans and Central Americans who have been coming to the United States for decades, most Venezuelans do not have relatives and friends already in American cities to support them.

State, county and local officials in Utah have been convening meetings with representatives of homeless service providers, immigrant-rights groups and others who said in interviews that they were at a breaking point.

“The population of asylum seekers continues to increase rapidly without resources from the state, county or city,” said Wendy Garvin, executive director of Unsheltered Utah, which serves homeless people.

“We’re scrambling because we don’t have extra funding to put toward this new population,” she said.

Unemployment in Utah is extremely low, and the economy is booming. But without work authorization, the migrants must toil in the informal economy, accepting pay below the minimum wage. Rents are rarely under $1,000 a month.

Fights have broken out in Home Depot parking lots as migrants hustle to be hired by contractors and homeowners who pull up offering a few hours of work — painting, gardening, moving boxes. Migrant families with young children have been spotted at encampments alongside homeless adults with mental-health and drug-abuse issues.

Still, families keep arriving from the border and from overwhelmed cities, like New York and Denver, which have been offering migrants free bus rides and flights to other destinations.

A Venezuelan family of nine, including four children, landed in Salt Lake City on a flight from New York on a frigid night, with nowhere to go.

They were among hundreds of newcomers who have shown up at the only family shelter in Salt Lake County, a 300-bed facility in Midvale. Stays for many have stretched to several months.

The Road Home, a nonprofit group that operates the center, has tried to accommodate most migrant families, but funding restrictions for people who are not residents of the United States, coupled with capacity constraints, prevent it from helping all of them. There are 100 people on the wait list.

“We can’t own this problem,” said Michelle Flynn, executive director of the Road Home. “We don’t have the capacity, dollars or expertise.”

Some churches and American families are hosting migrants. Others have been collecting secondhand items for them. And organizations like UnityintheCommUnity, started by Annette Miller, an observant Mormon, enlists dozens of volunteer instructors to teach English to migrants.

“I turn families away often,” said Lisa Fladmo, a caseworker at Family Promise Salt Lake, an interfaith alliance that assists homeless families.

“The root of the problem is that they can’t work,” she said. “I’m very frustrated with the government for allowing people into the country and not allowing them to work immediately.”

She has witnessed close up, she said, how quickly doors open for people who get work permits.

Luigi Machado, 33; his wife, Genesis; and their infant, Milan, relocated to Salt Lake City in November after Mr. Machado’s off-the-books work remodeling a hotel in North Carolina dried up.

“I heard Utah had jobs and generous people,” he said in an interview.

But no employer would hire Mr. Machado, who had traveled with his family to the United States from Venezuela. He had applied for asylum but was still waiting for a work permit.

Their savings depleted, the family slept in a van for 15 days, until Ms. Fladmo was able to secure housing for them, first in a church and then in a small apartment in exchange for maintenance work.

Last week, eight months after filing the paperwork, Mr. Machado received employment authorization.

He reported to a construction job the next day.

“I’m going to pursue the American dream right here in Utah,” he said.

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