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Asylum-Seekers Find Shelter at Washington State Church

Jan Bolerjack, pastor of the Riverton Park United Methodist Church in Tukwila, Wash., opened the church's doors to hundreds of asylum-seekers.
Jan Bolerjack, pastor of the Riverton Park United Methodist Church in Tukwila, Wash., opened the church's doors to hundreds of asylum-seekers.

Though the number of migrants crossing daily into the United States has fallen since December, local communities are still scrambling to provide them with resources.

In the Pacific Northwest, Riverton Park United Methodist Church in Tukwila, Washington, has become a shelter for hundreds of asylum-seekers from Africa and Latin America.

At the church entrance is a hum of conversations in Portuguese, French and Spanish, as asylum-seekers from countries such as Angola, Congo and Venezuela gather to discuss their immigration claims.

Asylum-Seekers Find Shelter at Church in Washington State
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Eurice, a bespectacled woman in her 50s, came from Venezuela. She asked that her last name not be used.

"I don't want to be a burden to the United States," she said. "I didn't come here for a dream. Because of my work at the Colombian consulate, I was labeled a traitor. I've worked all my life, and instead of a peaceful retirement, I had to flee my country, walking through the jungle, crossing seven countries."

She said she is grateful to find shelter at this church.

"I thank God and the lady pastor for providing a roof over my head, a bed to sleep in, and a plate of food. I am blessed already," she said.

Pastor Jan Bolerjack said that over the past year, Riverton has helped find shelter, food and basic necessities for about 1,000 asylum-seekers of various ages, including pregnant women and toddlers. Some of them arrived on their own. Others were brought in by the police.

"The police department in Seattle found them on the streets in tents and realized they were a different population from our usual homeless individuals," Bolerjack told VOA. "And so, they started bringing them here. We went from zero to 100 by March 2023, and then 400 by July. In October, the mayor of Tukwila declared a humanitarian emergency here. And this is where we are now — continuing with this humanitarian emergency."

Asylum-seekers from Africa cook at the small church kitchen in Riverton Park United Methodist Church in Tukwila, Washington.
Asylum-seekers from Africa cook at the small church kitchen in Riverton Park United Methodist Church in Tukwila, Washington.

Unlike refugees who are eligible for resettlement services, asylum-seekers are unable to work legally before their work permit application is approved in a process that may last many months.

Bolerjack said her church has always had an open door for the most vulnerable members of the community, but with limited resources, staff and volunteers are overwhelmed.

"We have to provide everything, from food to laundry to bathrooms, showers, tents, sleeping bags, mattresses. Everything has to come from our friends and sources in the neighborhood," she explained, walking through the church hall where piles of donated mattresses, suitcases and bags line the walls, and past a tiny kitchen, where several young African women are cooking, and through an area where volunteers sort donated clothes.

"Somehow, this place has been advertised across the country and at the border as the place to go," Bolerjack explained. "And you know, I can take great pride in that. And yet, I'm kind of embarrassed when they arrive after a long, traumatic journey and we have to say, 'You have to sleep in a wet, soggy tent.'"

In winter, when temperatures in the area dropped below zero, hundreds of asylum-seekers were temporarily moved from tents to local hotels. Some refused to return to the encampment, asking lawmakers for help.

State Representative Mia Gregerson is working to improve the state’s response to the crisis with legislation to better coordinate migrant services. Speaking with VOA at her office in the state capital, Olympia, she said that despite Tukwila’s tradition of welcoming newcomers, the community of fewer than 22,000 people shouldn’t be pushed to shoulder the crisis on its own.

"I think they're really rolling up their sleeves well and making a go of it," Gregerson said. "But there is a lot of uncertainty. What are we going to do when the funds run out?"

She said processing asylum cases is often complicated by different immigration statuses within a family. The bill she introduced with 18 co-sponsors seeks to empower the state’s Office of Refugee and Immigrant Assistance.

"The idea is that the office is able to be nimble and utilize resources quickly to not only put them into the system for legal advice that's correct and factual, or quickly get them the education resources, transportation needs, and housing vouchers," Gregerson said. "And we need to maintain that contact with them so we can help them through the system. Otherwise, they may fall victim to other types of issues."

Washington Governor Jay Inslee’s current budget includes $5 million in new funding for the Office of Refugee and Immigrant Assistance to expand support services for newly arriving people who do not qualify for federal refugee resettlement program services. A separate request for $3.4 million is meant to help provide transitional and long-term housing support to asylum-seekers in the county around Seattle.

Volunteers at Riverton help asylum-seekers complete the required paperwork in English. In the past year, Bolerjack said just one person won their asylum case and obtained a work permit.

That has not diminished the optimism of Jeremiah Lefau, who said he left Angola with his wife and three children in December 2022 because of insecurity in his country. They lived at Riverton for four months before they were approved for family shelter. The children are enrolled in local schools along with more than 100 young asylum-seekers. Lefau is taking English classes and volunteers at the church.

"I feel good about the future," he said. "Now, we need to help others as the church helped us."

Eurice, from Venezuela, hopes to return to her country someday.

"My family is still there. I miss them," she said. "I hope to stay here as long as necessary to be safe, and I thank the United States for this opportunity they are giving us. But I have faith that one day my country will be able to repair itself so I can return."

Meanwhile, the Biden administration is advancing measures making it more challenging for asylum-seekers to stay in the U.S.