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‘We can’t take them’: Garfield County commissioners refuse to fund Carbondale’s newcomer response

Garfield County commissioners turned down the Town of Carbondale’s request for funding to serve new immigrants in the Roaring Fork Valley on Feb. 20.
Halle Zander
Aspen Public Radio
Garfield County commissioners (from left to right) Tom Jankovsky, John Martin, and Mike Samson turned down the Town of Carbondale’s request for funding to serve new immigrants in the Roaring Fork Valley on Feb. 20.

Garfield County will not offer any funding to the town of Carbondale as it tries to support dozens of recent immigrants who have arrived in the small mountain community in recent months.

Carbondale staff and trustees asked the county commissioners for financial assistance, shelter resources and organizational support during a county meeting on Feb. 20.

The three commissioners all expressed concerns about supporting new arrivals over people who’ve been living in the county for longer periods of time.

Commissioner Mike Samson said the board has a “sworn duty” to take care of the people already in Garfield County and doesn't want to reallocate funds that would otherwise go to their constituents.

“I think about the vets,” he said. “I think about the homeless. I think about the people who are just barely making it. … We’ve got to take care of our people first.”

Commissioner John Martin said he’s been homeless himself, and the new immigrants should become more independent and rely less on public services.

“They need to become citizens,” Martin said. “Stop enabling. If they really want help, they need to go back to the centers in Denver and get legal [support].”

Citizenship is notoriously difficult to receive; according to immigration attorneys, some newcomers may end up on waitlists for more than four decades before they can be naturalized.

But Rob Stein, who’s been managing Carbondale’s immigrant response, said many of the new arrivals in the Roaring Fork Valley are from Venezuela and qualify for Temporary Protected Status, which offers work permits and some protections from deportation.

It can still take months to apply and receive the paperwork.

Carbondale received funds from the Department of Local Affairs to house 40 people in temporary shelters through March 31. Stein said this housing buys the immigrants some time, so they can legally incorporate into the workforce.

Commissioner Martin said he understood, but was unsupportive of the effort, and said the town was “still enabling them.”

Stein responded that without a plan to support the new arrivals in April, Carbondale and Garfield County will be forced to deal with the effects of a significant unhoused population.

“Absent any other action, it seems likely what will happen is people will be back camping on public space,” Stein said. “It'll be an enforcement problem. It will be an environmental problem. It will be a community problem. It will be a deterrent for tourism.”

In a phone call after the meeting, Stein said he was concerned that the county commissioners didn’t fully recognize the consequences of inaction.

Even though the shelters are set to close, Carbondale officials expect additional immigrants to arrive in the Roaring Fork Valley looking for work as temperatures warm and more day jobs become available.

While financial support is off the table, Garfield County commissioners said their director of Human Services, Sharon Longhurst-Pritt, will continue to attend meetings where local governments strategize future plans.

Halle Zander is a broadcast journalist and the afternoon anchor on Aspen Public Radio during "All Things Considered." Her work has been recognized by the Public Media Journalists Association, the Colorado Broadcasters Association, and the Society of Professional Journalists.