Cox condemns Denver sending migrants to Utah, says 'resources are completely depleted'

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox at the state Capitol on March 1. Cox said Friday that Denver officials have paid travel costs to send migrants to Utah, calling it "unacceptable" and saying the state's "resources are completely depleted."

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox at the state Capitol on March 1. Cox said Friday that Denver officials have paid travel costs to send migrants to Utah, calling it "unacceptable" and saying the state's "resources are completely depleted." (Megan Nielsen, Deseret News)


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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Gov. Spencer Cox is reacting to news that Denver officials have paid travel costs to send migrants to Utah, calling it "unacceptable" and saying the state's "resources are completely depleted."

Cox issued a statement on the social platform X in response to a news report that Denver has paid for some 2,000 migrants to travel to Utah in the past 18 months.

"We recently learned that the Democrat mayor of Denver has been sending illegal immigrants to Utah without proper notification or approval," the Republican governor said. "This is completely unacceptable and follows on the failed catch-and-release policy of the Biden administration."

"Every state has received illegal immigrants and Utah's resources are completely depleted," Cox continued. "All 50 states, including Utah, are now border states due to the failed immigration policies of President Biden and Congress. Once again we call on the Biden administration and Congress to solve the crisis."

Cox's statement was in response to a KUTV story about the number of migrants Denver helped to travel to Utah. The story quoted a Denver official who said the migrants chose their destination and the city helps facilitate travel to meet up with friends or family.

Denver has bought thousands of bus tickets for immigrants since November 2022, according to a Denverite article in February, with some 3,400 to Chicago, 2,880 to New York City and 1,680 to Salt Lake City.

"On May 13, the city of Denver informed the state, Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County that Denver was paying to send illegal immigrants out of Denver to locations across the country, including to Salt Lake City," Jennifer Napier-Pearce, Cox's senior adviser of communications, told KSL.com in a statement. "Just over two weeks ago we learned of an immigrant family at the Salt Lake City airport who had been sent by Denver officials with no resources and no place to go. Denver did not consult with us prior to instigating this practice."

Napier-Pearce said officials have been told that 59 people have been bused or flown into Salt Lake City. Utah does not know the exact number of migrants who have been flown or bused into the state, another administration spokeswoman said, because the state does not screen every traveler who passes through the Salt Lake City International Airport.

Since learning of the policy, Napier-Pearce said, the state, city and county have begun to "push back on the Department of Homeland Security, the city of Denver, the state of Colorado and the Biden administration demanding they immediately stop this practice."

"Denver must end this practice and Congress and the president must do their job and fix this untenable situation," she said.

A spokesman for the Salt Lake City mayor's office said Mayor Erin Mendenhall is aware of incoming migrants and has spoken with Denver Mayor Mike Johnston in the past month. But he said the mayor's office is trying to get the message out — with help from the county and state — that there is a shortage of resources.

"More often, our metro area is seeing the arrival of families seeking asylum, who do not have existing connections or family in Utah," Andrew Wittenberg said. "Contact and communication about their arrival would require other state and local governments or nonprofits outside Utah to connect with local service providers or officials in advance. Like many local governments working to navigate this increasing nationwide challenge, Utah does not have a formal entrance process for new arrivals, and often those who arrive in Salt Lake City spread out to locations across Salt Lake County and the region."

He said the city is working with the state and county to communicate the lack of resources available.

"The message conveyed is that Utah's emergency shelters and services are currently operating at full capacity," he said.

Utah House Minority Leader Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, issued a statement Friday afternoon, noting that "asylum seekers have a legal right to be in the U.S. under immigration law," and said migrants "entering Utah are at various stages within the legal asylum-seeking process" that began at the border.

"Amidst the debates and policies regarding immigration, it's crucial to remember that asylum seekers are real people, including many children, who have endured incredibly harsh conditions and arrived here with hopes and dreams of a better life," she said.

Romero also called on Congress to approve a bipartisan immigration bill, saying it's "not a perfect bill," but "would have addressed the issues we're dealing with today."

"We urge our governor, the state Legislature, and the entire Utah congressional delegation to leverage this opportunity and ask Congress to bring the bill to a vote," she added.

Utah Senate Minority Leader Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, also spoke out Friday afternoon, condemning what she called an "increase in inaccurate information regarding our current immigration situation."

"Referring to people as 'illegal' is incorrect, dehumanizing, and fosters a narrative that their very existence is criminal," she said. "These terms perpetuate harmful misconceptions. Asylum-seeking families arriving at our borders are fleeing extreme danger and are legally entitled to apply for protection under U.S. immigration law. This rhetoric contradicts Utah's values and our own history of welcoming families seeking refuge from persecution, such as the pioneers. We must rise above divisive rhetoric and instead engage in constructive dialogue that reflects the Utah way."

Immigration has become a flashpoint in Cox's campaign for reelection, as GOP challenger and state Rep. Phil Lyman has repeatedly claimed Utah is a "sanctuary state" for undocumented immigrants.

"I'm grateful our legacy media is reporting on Utah's sanctuary state status," Lyman said in a post Friday. "Late; very, very late is better than never. Spencer Cox needs to be retired, Utah's future depends on it."

Cox and other officials, including sheriffs from across the state have spoken out against such claims. An Immigration and Customs Enforcement memo, which has since been rescinded, has led to other allegations of the state being a sanctuary for migrants, but Utah County Sheriff Mike Smith, who also leads the Utah Sheriffs' Association, in October called the memo "misleading, reckless and damaging to any further interactions with ICE."

"Let me say this as clearly as possible: Utah is not a sanctuary state. It has never been a sanctuary state. It will never be a sanctuary state. And anyone who tells you otherwise is lying," Cox said during a virtual town hall in March. "They're lying to you because they want to use fear and divisiveness to try to gain power."

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Bridger Beal-Cvetko covers Utah politics, Salt Lake County communities and breaking news for KSL.com. He is a graduate of Utah Valley University.

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