As a cold front arrived in the Seattle area this past weekend, with temperatures dipping to 14° Fahrenheit (-10 °C), hundreds of asylum-seekers from tropical countries scrambled to find a warm place to stay.
The migrants, who are mainly from Angola, Venezuela and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), had been sheltering on the grounds of the Riverton Park United Methodist Church in Tukwila, just south of Seattle. Many were camping in tents, while others slept in the crowded rooms of the small church building.
Community organizers estimated that as many as 400 to 600 asylum-seekers arrived in King County over the past year, with most being funneled to Riverton Park. The influx is part of a wider increase in people seeking refuge in the U.S. According to a recent report from the New York Times, between October 2022 and September 2023, 3.1 million crossed the U.S.-Mexico border. Many applied for asylum, a legal process that allows migrants to remain in the country if they can demonstrate proof of persecution in their home country. In total, 1.8 million new arrivals were in ongoing proceedings or stuck in legal limbo at the end of 2023.
Because migrants cannot obtain work permits before their asylum applications get approved — which can take many months to process and are frequently rejected — they often have to rely on support from governments or charities. As Real Change previously reported, the federal government has no centralized system for helping asylum-seekers or finding them housing and other essential needs. This leaves state governments, local authorities and civil society groups with the task of trying to make the best out of a dysfunctional situation.
Riverton Park church staff, including Reverend Jan Bolerjack, have tried extensively to accommodate the needs of migrants in their makeshift refugee camp. However, this has not been enough, as asylum-seekers have denounced the conditions at the encampment as inhumane.
At a Jan. 10 press conference, African asylum-seekers described enduring cold and wet tents, poor sanitation, rats, inadequate food and other hardships. They also reported being excluded from aid and facing racist discrimination. Many of them have fled war or genocide, and some were survivors of sexual violence.
“The conditions that we are living in there are bad; they are humiliating conditions that no one should be experiencing — not even an animal,” said Nkessi Sebastião Mbala, an asylum-seeker who had sheltered at the camp.
The press conference was organized by grassroots groups that have been helping asylum-seekers, including Super Familia and South King County and Eastside Mutual Aid. Volunteers helped translate people’s testimonies from French, Portuguese and Lingala into Spanish and English.
“What we’re seeing is that it’s not safe; it’s really dirty,” said Isabel Domingo, an asylum-seeker who stayed at Riverton Park. “It smells and people are living right there next to the garbage. You can see rats eat the garbage and then come and run right through your tent.”
“People don’t even have a place to keep their paperwork or their money,” Domingo said. “They’re afraid that [they] will be robbed. When people are charging their phones they have to make sure they’re standing right next to it so that it doesn’t get taken.”
On the evening of Jan. 12, Public Health — Seattle & King County sent out a notification that a person who had stayed at the Riverton Park camp tested positive for Hepatitis A. The virus spreads mainly through contamination of food or water and can be prevented through proper sanitation practices.
As a result of media attention and advocacy, King County allocated $3 million in November to alleviate the humanitarian situation at Riverton Park. The county subcontracted the nonprofit Thrive International to move people into temporary hotel shelters through June. In an email to Real Change, King County spokesperson Katie Rogers wrote that 90 rooms have been occupied and 10 remain available, housing 304 people. Rogers added that the county was actively bringing more folks inside in the week of the cold front and that it was prioritizing pregnant people and families with young children.
Nevertheless, the investment from King County was unable to meet the need. By early January there were still a significant number of asylum-seekers camping, with one organizer estimating that nearly 200 folks were still at the Riverton Park church.
Many asylum-seekers were very critical of Bolerjack and the church, saying she had mishandled the situation, not operated with sufficient urgency and exhibited controlling tendencies. Others questioned why they hadn’t seen the results of the money that was allocated. Some community organizers also shared these concerns about Bolerjack and Riverton Park.
Bolerjack did not respond to a request for comment.
One of the people who criticized Bolerjack was Maurece Graham-Bey, an organizer with Save the Kids, a national nonprofit based in Utah. On the evening of Jan. 10, Graham-Bey and other volunteers got about 50 families, numbering more than 100 people, into hotel rooms funded by private donations. Graham-Bey said the goal was to ensure that no pregnant people or kids were left in the cold and that families would be in the hotels for at least a month.
But the families Save the Kids helped were exclusively Venezuelan and Latine.
Graham-Bey said this was because almost all of the asylum-seekers who had been camping outside were Venezuelan. However, some of the Congolese and Angolan asylum-seekers said they had been camping out in the cold as well. They claimed that their exclusion was blatantly discriminatory.
At Riverton Park there had been a falling-out between Venezuelan and African asylum-seekers, with dueling accusations of favoritism. Graham-Bey said a Venezuelan boy had been assaulted by an Angolan person on church grounds, which inflamed the divisions.
Rosario Lopez, an organizer with Super Familia, said they weren’t able to find more information or concrete evidence about this incident. However, when delivering food to the camp, she said they heard numerous anti-Black epithets and insults from many of the Venezuelan migrants they encountered. Lopez added that in one instance, a woman threatened to beat them up after they called her racist.
Additionally, many of the Congolese and Angolan asylum-seekers say they have been deprioritized because they are young, single adults and not families with children.
“I’m wondering if single people are not deserving of help?” said Mbumba Muzinga Belma, a 20-year-old asylum-seeker. “Do they not experience [the] cold? Do they not deserve people’s support?
“I also deserve to be helped; I also feel cold,” she said.
There are also larger structural and systemic factors at play. Venezuelan migrants have received Temporary Protected Status, which confers protection from deportation and the legal right to work. Washington state also has a large Latine population, which makes language access a lower barrier.
All this has contributed to a feeling from many African asylum-seekers that they are being excluded or left discriminated against due to being Black and African. Lopez said anti-Blackness was a big part of why there was a humanitarian crisis at the church to begin with. Immigrant rights advocates told Real Change in November that there was a double standard to how migrants from Africa and Latin America are treated vis-à-vis white Ukrainian refugees.
Super Familia and other mutual aid organizers were able to get 16 African asylum-seekers into temporary accommodations on Jan. 11. However, there are still people who remain at the church. They said a long-term, sustainable solution is needed.
The African asylum-seekers who spoke at the press conference shared that they were angry and disappointed by the way the government was treating them and letting them live in inhumane conditions. One person, who wished to stay anonymous due to safety concerns, said that after intervening in their home countries, the least the U.S. could do was to provide adequate housing.
“If the United States wasn’t destabilizing our countries back in Africa and other places, we wouldn’t even need to be here,” they said. “They pillaged everything; they took everything from our land and our resources. And now that we’re here and they’re not going to take care of us, [it] is unacceptable.”
Read more of the Jan. 17–24, 2024 issue.