The Mayor is an Immigrant. His Conservative City Said No to Migrants.

The Washington Post
A gallery of Colorado Springs mayors past and present is on display in the City Administration Building.

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – Throngs of people were crossing the southern border. Denver was straining to assist the thousands who had made their way there. But 70 miles south, the migrant crisis had hardly touched Colorado’s second largest city – and local officials didn’t want that to change.

County commissioners announced they were aware of a small group of migrants staying at a nonprofit shelter and sternly declared they would not devote a dime to providing care. City council members followed with an equally sharp resolution emphasizing that theirs was no sanctuary city and would not provide help.

In the middle of the fray was Mayor Blessing “Yemi” Mobolade, a Nigerian immigrant and political independent whose victory last year in this majority-White and reliably red stronghold amounted to a political earthquake. A former pastor, he campaigned as a unifier. Now he was confronting one of the nation’s most divisive issues, while insisting it was not an issue for Colorado Springs.

“We don’t have a crisis,” Mobolade told reporters last month after the resolution’s passage. “I’m trying to de-escalate our community from the notion that we do have a crisis.”

That’s a tall order in an election year when immigration is inflaming local politics even in places few migrants have settled. As cities such as Denver, Chicago and New York have struggled with influxes, dozens of peripheral jurisdictions have broadcast that they have neither the resources nor desire to play host. Others have gone beyond statements: Grundy County, Ill., erected highway signs admonishing bus drivers not to drop off migrants.

Numerous communities are feeling the spillover effects of the crisis, such as the diverse Denver suburb of Aurora, where nonprofits have been aiding waves of migrants over the past 15 months but the Republican-led city council in February voted down any aid. In the more liberal suburb of Lakewood, upset residents packed a public meeting where officials tried to dispel false rumors that migrants would be taken in. Others have preemptively thrown up walls, including Western Colorado’s Mesa County several weeks ago. Despite seeing few migrants, it passed a non-sanctuary resolution targeting anyone who appears “uninvited.”

Most such resolutions, critics point out, are political statements with no legal weight. A Denver Post editorial characterized them as efforts to “appease Texas Gov. Greg Abbott,” who has bused nearly 17,000 migrants to that city since mid-May. But officials in some localities make clear that the intended audiences are their own residents, who are angry about border security, as well as cities such as Denver, which has spent $60 million and cut some services to aid nearly 40,000 migrants.

“This is a problem of sanctuary cities who thought it would be fun to virtue signal. And now they’re reaping the rewards,” Carrie Geitner, a commissioner for the county surrounding Colorado Springs, said in February. Her message for migrants: “Keep going. Do not stop here in El Paso County.”

Denver Mayor Mike Johnston said the “noise” in nearby jurisdictions meant his city has mostly gone it alone, though some have helped in low-profile ways. He said he views the resolutions as shortsighted.

“We believe these newcomers can be a net benefit to the city,” said Johnston, who, along with other Democratic mayors, has pleaded with Congress for help. “We view ourselves as on the right side of history and on the right side of economic growth.”

Colorado Springs is different both politically and demographically. At the foot of the famed Pikes Peak, the city is known as home to the U.S. Air Force Academy and an epicenter of evangelical Christianity. About two-thirds of its 484,000 residents are White, and around 18 percent are Latino. A Washington Post analysis of federal data shows that some 2,200 Latin American migrants – adults and children involved in immigration court proceedings – have settled here at some point since 2021.

During his campaign last year, Mobolade pitched himself as a pragmatic outsider – an entrepreneur, business owner and city administrator who was unhindered by partisan loyalty. He’d come to the United States for college and then stayed after graduating with bachelor’s degrees in business administration and computer information systems. He moved to Colorado Springs in 2010 to start a church. Though the conservative city was steeped in Christianity, he saw an opportunity to “connect with the least of these” and promote a faith of “compassion and love and making things happen.”

Serving as mayor seemed a natural extension of those elements of his life, and his 15-point victory over a former GOP secretary of state made him the city’s first elected Black mayor and the first non-Republican since Colorado Springs began electing mayors in 1979.

“I was taught as a kid: You don’t marry outside your tribe. You don’t think like the other tribes. What does that sound like? Politics,” Mobolade, 45, said in an interview at his sixth-floor office overlooking downtown. “I think America as a whole has a distrust with the establishment. … There’s a tiredness of it.”

The migrant crisis landed on his desk in the form of a voice mail from a contact at the Salvation Army shelter, who told him the facility was housing 21 Venezuelan families who had traveled by bus from Denver, squeezing its ability to help locals. Mobolade said he shared the information with county commissioners. They quickly assembled a news conference – with little notice to the mayor – where Geitner decried a crisis “destroying cities and communities around our nation.”

A right-leaning advocacy group, Springs Taxpayers United, obtained the voice mail through a public records request and posted it on its website.

“It became a political tool,” Mobolade said. Residents promptly flooded him with complaints.

The mayor took to Facebook Live to deliver a message he hoped would tread a middle ground. There was no crisis, he said, nor did he want one. He would be a “careful steward of our taxpayer dollars.” As an immigrant who came through a “traditional” pathway, he understood migrants’ quest for opportunity, but the federal government needed to “ensure they’re taken care of.”

Colorado Springs, he stressed, would not become a sanctuary city.

Even so, the council proposed a non-sanctuary resolution. While Mobolade said he urged softer wording, he did not oppose the overarching message: Recent budget cuts and lack of county assistance meant Colorado Springs could not afford to aid migrants.

“What I don’t support for my city is any kind of hate or politicizing real people,” he said.

By the time the resolution reached a vote in mid-February, city staff noted just nine migrant families at the Salvation Army. During more than two hours of public testimony, in which attendees jeered, applauded and beat a drum, most speakers opposed the measure and called it fearmongering.

Council member Nancy Henjum saw the effort as a step back for a city that launched a successful 1992 state ballot measure – later overturned in federal court – to prohibit local gay rights laws.

“It feels like we have finally emerged from the legacy of being known as the ‘hate state,’” Henjum said in an interview. “We’ve come so far, and I believe we want to be a welcoming city.”

Yet others who spoke at the meeting cited record border crossings from Mexico and Denver’s bursting shelters as reason enough to take a stand against “these trespassers,” as one person called them. Dave Donelson, the resolution’s sponsor, pointed to a Colorado Gazette report on a recent spike in patients who “appear to be immigrants” at two local hospitals. The proposal passed 6-3.

“It’s willing blindness,” said Donelson, who has faulted the mayor’s emergency plan to handle a possible migrant influx as frustratingly vague. He repeatedly asked city staff how many migrants are in town and was told that they have no business demanding numbers from nonprofits that might be aiding new arrivals. “You can say you’re not a sanctuary city, but if your actions are to say we need to help people who are coming here for a better way of life, and we will not tell nonprofits or suggest to them what to do, that leaves me concerned.”

At a media briefing a week after the resolution passed, Mobolade shared Catholic Charities’ estimate that “asylum seekers” made up just 1 percent of those served at its local shelter.

“The rumors are there because of false fear that has been stirred up in our community,” he said, with the city wasting money chasing reports of migrant arrivals.

Jerima King has not been impressed with any city official’s handling of the situation. She is on the board of the Accompaniment and Sanctuary Coalition of Colorado Springs, a group of volunteers and churches assisting immigrants with basic necessities, housing, transportation and school enrollment. The organization began during the Trump administration, when the churches provided refuge for a small number of immigrants facing deportation.

These days, demand is not great: The coalition is helping only about a half-dozen migrant families, and King, who testified against the resolution, said she’s not sure why the city would not want to help them assimilate.

“People need to think long-term,” she said. “Do we want a whole bunch of people living in our city that do not have jobs?”

On a recent afternoon, she took milk and melons to Estebana Gonzalez, a Venezuelan who arrived five months ago with her family after her work as a manicurist and her husband’s as a mechanic vanished amid economic collapse. They came straight to Colorado Springs from the border because a woman they met while working in Chile mentioned she was headed to the city and offered to take them in. She did not.

A church put them up in a local hotel for three months. The coalition is now temporarily paying for an apartment, and Gonzalez’s two sons, 7 and 13, are attending public schools. Gonzalez, 39, was unaware of the non-sanctuary resolution, though she was not surprised to learn politicians were taking a stand against migrants.

“They generalize us. All Venezuelans aren’t bad,” she said. “Some of us came to work and make money to send home. Others came to make a new life here. Others come to do wrong … unfortunately, we all pay for that.”

The migrant issue has calmed of late, and so have the irate – and occasionally expletive-strewn – messages that Mobolade was getting. Even with his efforts to carefully navigate the issue, he said he faced more prejudice during the controversy than at any other point in his short tenure.

Some critics saw his nods to immigrant struggles as evidence of misplaced loyalties. Others heard his promise to keep Colorado Springs from becoming a sanctuary as selling out. Mobolade said he considered it a good sign that the antagonism came from both sides:

“I believe sometimes it takes an immigrant to remind us what’s the best of us as Americans.”