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News / Northwest

Help for WA asylum-seekers is focus of bill passed by Legislature

By Jacquelyn Jimenez Romero, The Seattle Times
Published: March 1, 2024, 7:48am

OLYMPIA — A bill designed to free up state help for a growing number of asylum-seekers coming to Washington is headed to the governor’s desk to become law.

Sponsored by Rep. Mia Gregerson, D-SeaTac, the bill passed the House with a vote of 61-35 on Feb. 13 and the Senate with a vote of 29-20 Wednesday. It now needs Gov. Jay Inslee’s signature.

The bill seeks to improve the social and economic integration of immigrants and refugees arriving in Washington and assist them with basic needs.

Over the last year, the number of asylum-seekers in King County has grown to exceed 1,000 people, with more than 800 seeking shelter at Tukwila’s Riverton Park United Methodist Church. The church and volunteers have shouldered most of the fundraising and work, raising questions over how state and local governments should address the crisis.

Washington provides access to services such as cash assistance, medical assistance, employment services, English language instruction and more to refugees through its Office of Refugee and Immigrant Assistance.

Refugees come to the U.S. already having secured a legal status that allows them to work. However, state officials have said they cannot use their funds on asylum-seekers.

Asylum-seekers must wait months before they’re able to receive work permits due to federal regulations. That means they often can’t afford housing, food or other necessities in the meantime.

House Bill 2368, if signed, would allow immigrants to have greater access to services.

“This is another way that we invest in people,” Gregerson said. “We get them the resources, give them a little bit of help and then they will turn and become participating people in society.”

While the bill passed through both chambers easily, some voted against it. Concerns over the bill’s fiscal impacts were raised by Sen. Matt Boehnke, R-Kennewick.

“We didn’t have enough time to actually look into those impacts on the community, the impacts on DSHS,” Boehnke said, referring to the Department of Social and Health Services.

So far, King County has dedicated about $4 million for temporary shelter and grants to help the influx of asylum-seekers.

Inslee proposed $8.4 million in his supplemental budget for the effort.

Still, advocates and service providers say it’s not enough and are pushing for the state to allocate $25 million in its budget. The House and Senate proposed budgets both include numbers closer to that.

The state’s budget is currently being negotiated and has to be finalized before the session ends March 7.