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Denver's new top immigration official shares insight into city's response, future planning

Sarah Plastino, a former human rights lawyer and advocate, was hired as the newcomer program director in February.
Denver Newcomer Program Director Sarah Plastino
Posted at 8:31 PM, Mar 21, 2024
and last updated 2024-03-21 22:31:32-04

DENVER — The City of Denver’s new point person for immigrant policy and programs sat down with Denver7 on Thursday.

Sarah Plastino, a former human rights lawyer and advocate, was hired as the newcomer program director in February. Denver7’s Jason Gruenauer spoke with her on the city’s initial response to the immigrant crisis before her arrival, the city budget pinch and resulting cuts, as well as her take on federal assistance and what success looks like.

Note: This transcript has minor edits for clarity.

Q: Can you just kind of boil down what you do and what you are doing here for the city? 

A: Sure. So I am the new newcomer program director. [Denver Mayor Mike Johnston] appointed me into that role. I am coordinating the city's response to the arrival of newcomers to Denver. This is a cross-agency effort. And so we are coordinating with various city agencies to respond to all the folks who are arriving here. So I handle everything from deciding the policy agenda with the mayor down to do we have enough beds at one of our shelters. So I do everything in between.

Q: What's the biggest challenge facing the city when it comes to immigrant arrivals?

A: It is making sure that we are approaching this in a proactive way. For the last few months, when we had many, many people arriving per day, we were in a reactionary stance. And we had to be that way because it was an emergency coming to our city and we had to make sure that people were safe. So now that we have lower numbers of people arriving, we are being deliberate about designing the system moving forward. And we're doing that very quickly, while we are also still responding to the folks who are arriving daily. So, you know, we just want to make sure we're transitioning to more of a sustainable long-term response.

Q: The response before you stepped into this role from the city, many would probably say was not perfect. It sounds like you're mostly agreeing with that?

A: No. I think it's easy to criticize when you're not in the shoes of the decision-makers. I'm not agreeing that the response wasn’t, I mean, nothing is perfect, right? I think that the city did an amazing job. And also the community did an amazing job of stepping up and meeting the needs on a very emergency basis. So you know, I'm so proud of how the city workers, our city councilors, our nonprofit sector, our foundation sector has approached this with compassion and urgency. I'm certainly, I'm sure we've made some mistakes along the way. And moving forward, we're making sure we're absolutely shoring up those safety net systems to make sure, for instance, we don't see any children sleeping on the street. That is my highest priority. So yes, I am hoping that moving forward, we will continue to improve our services that we are providing to folks.

Q: From reactive to proactive. What is an example of proactive?

A: So designing a system in a way that we envision it for the long term, rather than: We received 12 buses today, where are we going to put these folks? Right? So putting congregate shelter spaces in place, planning contingencies for, you know, worst case scenario if we have large numbers of people arriving. What is the scope of services we're going to provide to folks? All of these pieces, how do we have protocols in place, systems in place? We have, you know, 15 months of best practices. But it's just a matter of being more deliberate and creating over the medium term.

Q: What is your top priority in this role?

A: My top priority in this role is transitioning the city's response time to a more sustainable, long-term response in terms of facilitating the transition of the system. That's what we are going through right now. And then in terms of the human aspect, my top priority is making sure children are not in a situation of unhoused homelessness.

Q: How do you balance the financial city budget side with the human side, people showing up with nothing here in our city? 

A: I mean, that's the challenge. That's the dilemma. That's what we have all been doing as a city. So I think it is having those two values and in every decision we're making, balancing them, making sure that the decision is the financially sound one, as well as making sure that it is going to work for the individual newcomers who are impacted by that decision and going to work for our communities. So it's being thoughtful.

Q: But do those have equal weight?

A: It just depends on the specific decision. I mean, we make dozens of decisions every day, right? And some of them are tough. But you know, as a city, our core values are, we are a city that welcomes immigrants. And we are also a city that is practical, that wants to solve problems, wants to make things work. And I believe that those two are not mutually exclusive.

Q: How do you rank the following in terms of importance for the immigrants that are coming into our city: housing, employment, and legal status?

A: I think that housing is number one. It must come in tandem with employment. Legal status, I would say, is not an immediate human need. So like having a roof over your head, if I were a newcomer, that's going to come before figuring out how to file my asylum application, right? I have a year to file my asylum application under the law. So I'm going to figure out where I live and then I'm going to also figure out how I'm gonna pay for that house and how I'm going to feed my family. So if you're thinking from the perspective of the individual, legal status is incredibly important for long-term stability, sustainability of, you know, a family's life. And also, obtaining a work permit is incredibly important if a person has access to a work permit. So as a city, we're making sure we're supporting all three of those things.

Q: You've mentioned success and also long-term success. What does long-term success look like?

A: It looks like our normal migration flows that, you know, for all of time, people have come to Denver, seeking to reunite with families seeking economic opportunities, seeking protection from persecution. And, you know, we hope that it just gets back to business as normal. And that the city will not need to step in to ensure that in an emergency situation, people are being taken care of.

Q: What if the numbers go back up?

A: All day, all day, every day, we are responding to what is happening for a number of folks who are arriving and sheltering and the whole operations piece, at the same time as we are doing policy planning. You know, those two are hand in hand because we have to make daily adjustments and we are, you know, have to make daily decisions based on what we're seeing on the ground.

Q: The mayor has said in the past that we need help from the federal government — work permits, things like that. [Governor Jared Polis] has come out and said that. Do you have to live in a world, though, where that help is not coming? The backup from the federal level is not in the day-to-day operations?

A: As a city, we take charge of what's happening in our city. We cannot depend on the federal government in order to solve our problems. That is why Mayor Johnston is so proactive and is prioritizing this so heavily. What the federal government can do is they could reissue TPS, which is temporary protected status for folks from Venezuela. It was designed specifically for this type of situation where countries are experiencing war and natural disasters and large numbers of people are leaving and coming to the United States. Since 2017, a quarter of the population of Venezuela has left the country. It is a huge regional displacement, and we are contributing to the response to provide safety to many of those folks. As a city, we are encouraging the federal government to continue to take positive steps in that direction to provide some relief to interior cities and the folks who are fleeing those conditions.

Q: But you can’t count on it?

A: No you can't because they're a separate entity and they have their own decision-making abilities and priorities. And so, we can coordinate as best we can. And the federal government has been a really wonderful partner in a lot of aspects of this response. So we are working very closely with each other. FEMA has provided an amazing support, USCIS — which is the benefits arm of the Department of Homeland Security — has been on site at our work permit clinics and we will continue to offer up creative ideas to the White House as we see ways that they could assist.

Denver's new top immigration official shares insight into city's response