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Partnerships to help asylum-seekers at Tukwila church take shape amid city's state of emergency

caption: Riverton Park United Methodist Church in Tukwila, Wash.
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Riverton Park United Methodist Church in Tukwila, Wash.
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The growing number of migrants looking for asylum at a church in Tukwila prompted the city to declare a state of emergency on Friday.

The city is asking for help from state, county, and federal governments, and hopes to meet other priorities at the local level.

“The Tukwila community has always been welcoming to refugees and immigrants from around the world. Many new arrivals to the United States have called Tukwila home in their pathway to citizenship,” said Mayor Allan Ekberg.

Jan Bolerjack is a pastor at the Riverton Park United Methodist Church in Tukwila, where roughly 180 to 200 migrants are currently taking shelter. She said there’s a lack of regional infrastructure to help asylum-seekers like them.

“We promote ourselves as welcoming in the Pacific Northwest, and yet we've forgotten this whole group of people that are our new neighbors,” she said.

Bolerjack added that roughly two families arrive each day. To her, this is a racial equity issue — the majority of migrants seeking asylum at the church are brown and Black people.

“The question would be, if these were white bodies, would we not be responding the way we are? I think that's the question.”

On Monday each week, Riverton Park offers asylum-seekers legal consultations about their immigration cases — and there’s always a line. Accessing a consultation requires planning in advance.

The waiting around at Riverton Park also extends to handling basic housekeeping needs, like cooking a meal or drying one’s laundry.

Bolerjack said local nonprofits have been helping out, but they have limited capacity.

Bolerjack, partnering nonprofits, and Mayor Ekberg have said they are nervous about getting people into more substantial shelter before the cold sets in.

The Washington State Department of Social and Health Services is slated to create a task force, made up of state and local officials, to identify how to best respond to the needs of asylum-seekers, across jurisdictions. The agency oversees services for new immigrants.

“We know people and families are suffering, and our city, county, and state governments must work together to offer a collective response,” said Norah West, a communications director for the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services. "How that response will look, which agencies will provide resources, and in what capacity are all in the process of being determined.”

A coalition made up of immigrant and refugee service providers and other nonprofits in the community is forming, Bolerjack said. The coalition will address issues like how non-government organizations can help address safety, housing issues, and legal concerns.

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