Ten minutes away from the Southcenter mall, a humanitarian crisis is brewing. More than 350 asylum-seekers, most of whom have arrived in Washington in the past few months, are staying on the grounds of Riverton Park United Methodist Church in Tukwila, a suburb of roughly 21,000 people just south of Seattle.
The site has become something of a makeshift refugee camp. About 50 to 60 tents are crammed into the church’s front lawn, around side buildings and on the pavement of what used to be a parking lot. In the back, volunteers have scaled up a pantry to distribute food to residents and other community members three times a week. The church’s sanctuary has been transformed into a storage unit, while nonprofit organizations desperately try to help parents find child care.
Roughly half of the asylum-seekers are from Venezuela, while the other half are from Central African countries such as Angola, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Cameroon. Many people report surviving war, rape and other atrocities. The church’s pastor, Jan Bolerjack, said that Tukwila is often the first place where they feel safe since they fled their home countries. Due to the sensitive nature of their stories, members of the press did not directly interview residents.
However, advocates say that the conditions are inadequate. Dumpsters near the entrance overflow with bags of garbage, and the building’s few restrooms are in heavy use. In recent nights, the weather has dipped down below freezing.
“We’re from a tropical climate — even summertime is cold for them,” said Angela Ngiangi Diansasila, a fund developer and data manager at the Congolese Integration Network (CIN). “And you want them to sleep outside in the wintertime?”
On Oct. 6, the city of Tukwila declared a state of emergency, calling the situation at the church a “humanitarian crisis.” A coalition of immigrant advocacy groups has formed in an effort to find refugees housing and other accommodations, but so far the demand far outstrips the supply.
“We have been working to secure funding for the asylum-seekers at Riverton Park,” said Tukwila City Councilmember Mohamed Abdi. “Progress has been slow. But we are trying everything we can to help.”
Asylum is a formal process that allows migrants to remain in the United States if they can show proof of being persecuted in their home country. It is similar to but separate from the U.S. resettlement program, which grants legal status to refugees before they enter the country.
Riverton Park United Methodist has a proud tradition of welcoming anyone in need. For years, it hosted a sanctioned encampment for homeless community members; the Low Income Housing Institute constructed a tiny house village on the grounds in 2022.
Late last year, a few migrants started knocking on Bolerjack’s door, hearing that the church was offering shelter. Over the subsequent months, news of Riverton Park being a safe haven started to spread, and the trickle soon became a flood. In the span of a month, between late September and late October, the number of asylum-seekers staying at the Tukwila church nearly doubled, from 180 to over 350. It’s now gotten to the point where a new family is arriving every day, Bolerjack says.
It’s unclear exactly how people at the border started learning about Riverton Park. One camp resident said he had heard about it from other asylum-seekers in California. Bolerjack said that she even had an agent from Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) call to confirm if she could take in more asylum-seekers.
One reason could be Washington’s well-established immigrant advocacy organizations that can help migrants get resources like CIN and the Washington Immigrant Solidarity Network (WAISN).
Real Change could not verify if migrants are using their own money to purchase plane tickets to Seattle or if they received external assistance. CBP did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The influx of asylum-seekers to Washington is part of a wider uptick of migrants and refugees coming to the United States this year. According to CBP, at least 2.8 million migrants have crossed the U.S.-Mexico border this year, exceeding 2022’s total. One immigration advocate told USA Today he estimated that, on some days, more than 10,000 migrants cross the border to seek refuge.
A lack of safe routes, accommodations and government support has left a vacuum that non-governmental organizations and community groups are desperately trying to fill. Partisan politics may have also contributed to the deteriorating conditions, with reports of some Republican officials sending migrants to Democratic-led states.
Vanessa Reyes, the policy manager at WAISN, said the increase in migration is a logical consequence of the growing number of wars and natural disasters happening around the world. “We know that there’s going to be continuing numbers of people broadly seeking asylum around the world,” she said.
While the right to apply for asylum is sanctioned under international law, migrants face an uphill battle to receive official status. After they cross the U.S.-Mexico border, asylum-seekers are often detained and must submit an application for asylum.
This process is famously convoluted — just the initial asylum application form is 12 pages long and must be filled out in English. Due to a lack of legal support and language access, many asylum-seekers staying at Riverton Park haven’t submitted their application; others have been waiting for months to receive a formal response. Any clerical errors could result in a lost case and deportation.
Immigration advocates say that those who have received a response are being scheduled for their first hearings — in 2025 or 2026, leaving people without the right to work for years. Which judge an asylum-seeker gets could prove decisive due to the high degree of discretion.
“Some judges might have really high rates of denying cases, and others don’t,” Reyes said.
If they win their cases, asylees are entitled to certain public benefits and get a pathway to citizenship. But in the fiscal year of 2022, only 46% of asylum cases were approved.
Advocates say the federal government has been slow to react to the increased number of asylum-seekers. An August request from the Biden administration to Congress for money to go toward emergency housing has stalled.
The sole exception to this deadlock is the September extension of Temporary Protection Status (TPS) for Venezuelan asylum-seekers already residing in the country. While TPS allows asylum-seekers to work and protects them from deportation, it does not automatically provide for basic needs like housing.
Bolerjack said that no levels of government, whether federal, state or local, were prepared to provide the necessary funding to accommodate the influx of asylum-seekers. Some coalition members went to a recent Seattle City Council budget hearing to request money. They won $200,000 to support asylum-seekers — a tenth of the $2 million they asked for.
“I learned the hard way — and pretty fast — that there aren’t any resources for asylum-seekers,” Bolerjack said.
Some advocates say that the poor response to asylum-seekers in Tukwila could run afoul of the United States’ legal obligations. Under the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention, host countries are responsible to provide refugees and asylees with a minimum standard of housing, education and the right to work. Additionally, the U.S. has a history of engaging in potentially destabilizing actions — like imposing economic blockades and covertly supporting political assassinations — that may have contributed to displacement in Venezuela and the DRC.
Floribert Mubalama, the CEO of CIN, compared the conditions at Tukwila to his experiences as a refugee arriving in Malawi in 2006. Even though Malawi is a much poorer country, the treatment he received was superior to what Riverton Park residents are getting today.
“They gave me a place to sleep,” he said. “They gave me food. They gave me a blanket. And I was not sleeping in a tent — it was not outside. It was a shelter.”
Mubalama helped found CIN in 2016 to assist Congolese and Central African migrants and refugees to better adapt to living in the U.S. The organization has been active in assisting migrants at the church.
Racist double standards
Advocates said that the lack of action by the government to support the asylum-seekers staying at Riverton Park — who are largely Black and Brown folks — reveals a racist double standard. Many of them compared the asylum-seekers’ treatment to that of Ukrainian refugees in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year.
“I don’t think this would be happening if these were Ukrainians, if they were white Europeans,” Bolerjack said.
The racist divide even appears in the language that is used, Mubalama said.
“We know that, in this country, anybody coming from Europe is not treated as a refugee or an asylum-seeker,” he said. “The label of ‘asylum-seeker’ in America is only on African and Latin American people.”
Many young Central African immigrants also face disproportionate criminalization at the hands of the school-to-prison pipeline, Ngiangi Diansasila of CIN said. According to a report from the Black Alliance for Justice Immigration, Black people make up only 5% of the undocumented population yet account for more than 20% of immigrants facing removal based on a criminal conviction.
Racism within the immigration and asylum systems is also evident in how larger, more politically well-connected groups tend to monopolize government grants. Nida Ntita, a social worker with CIN, said that organizations like hers, which are already overwhelmed with casework and offer culturally competent services, should be at the front of the line for receiving funding.
“My worry is that the people who are receiving a big mound of money, they are not connected to those people,” Ntita said. “They are not even showing up to the struggle of those people.”
With local media covering the situation at the Tukwila church, advocates said that government leaders have started taking the issue more urgently. They say asylum-seekers need safe and adequate housing.
“The tents and the shelters that they’re in right now in our building, that’s keeping them safe and warm to a certain extent,” Bolerjack said. “But they can’t do this all winter long. It’s too hard.”
Read more of the Nov. 1-7, 2023 issue.