SEATTLE — Two weeks after the city of Tukwila declared a state of emergency over the influx of asylum-seekers sheltering at a local church, dozens more people continue to arrive each week, and substantial funding or assistance has yet to materialize.
In the last month, more than 100 additional people have arrived at Riverton Park United Methodist Church, said Rev. Jan Bolerjack.
Now, on the grounds, sleeping in tarped tents, packing into the church’s office spaces and occupying the limited number of tiny homes nearby. Eleven residents are pregnant women and about 90 are children, Bolerjack said.
Most of the residents are asylum-seekers from Venezuela, Angola and Congo, fleeing violence and conflict in their homeland.
A task force was launched two weeks ago bringing together representatives from Washington’s congressional delegation, governor’s office, King County, Tukwila and more to address the humanitarian crisis. Several city and county leaders have visited the camp in recent weeks, some multiple times.
But ramping up services has been slow, and funding, at least on the local level, is limited.
Last week, Seattle City Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda allocated $200,000 in the city budget toward helping migrants and asylum-seekers. King County Councilmember Dave Upthegrove, whose district abuts the church, directed $50,000 from his office to the church to help triage the situation.
“Local legislators are working hard to free up untargeted funds, but it’s limping us through,” Bolerjack said. “It’s got to be bigger.”
Unlike when Afghan refugees arrived in King County in late 2021 through 2022, there are no county-owned hotels available for asylum-seekers, Upthegrove said. Hotel vouchers, costing up to $150 a night per room, would also require significant funding, he said, as would building a new tiny home village.
Upthegrove said Public Health — Seattle & King County is there almost every day, “but at the end of the day, this will require federal help.”
“We’re talking about a refugee resettlement, which is traditionally a federal responsibility.” But when this many children are in tents, he said, “it becomes everyone’s responsibility.”
The office of U.S. Rep. Adam Smith, D-Seattle, in September asked the Federal Emergency Management Agency for grant money through the Shelter and Services program, which helps states provide housing, transportation, food and medical care to undocumented immigrants.
By then, the program’s existing pool of grant money had already been distributed, largely to metro areas that saw an influx of migrants like New York and Chicago and groups along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Whether the program will continue remains up in the air. The Biden administration has requested $600 million to fund the program for another year. That would require a federal government spending package to be passed by Congress, which stalled for weeks because of Republican infighting over the replacement of former House speaker Kevin McCarthy.
Smith’s office plans to send a letter to FEMA requesting the agency make future funds, should they become available, open to other states seeing an increase in undocumented immigrants and asylum-seekers like Washington.
In Tukwila, the Pacific Northwest’s chilly fall temperatures and rain are compounding an already dire situation. Exposed to the elements and new viruses and germs, many of the children living on the church’s grounds are currently sick, Bolerjack said.
“They’re very resilient people and very kind,” Bolerjack said. “They come with a lot of trauma and a lot of hopes that are just not being met.”
It’s unclear how people have found the church, but Bolerjack said it seems many have heard through word-of-mouth between families and travelers or were referred by different social service agencies in other states.
Asylum-seekers, unlike refugees who are granted rights to stay in the U.S. before stepping foot in the country, must first migrate to the U.S., then apply for asylum and await a trial to see if it is granted.
Paying for an attorney — which can easily cost more than $10,000 — is often the first financial priority for asylum-seekers, Bolerjack said, after which they will look to find housing. But to legally work, asylum-seekers must secure a work permit with the federal government, a process that can take more than six months.
Meanwhile, asylum-seekers continue to rely on Riverton Park United Methodist Church and other local organizations for food, shelter, legal assistance and health care.