Hundreds of asylum-seekers are camped out near Seattle. There's a vacant motel next door
Posted: June 7, 2024 - 4:59am

Signs line the front of an encampment of asylum-seekers mostly from Venezuela, Congo and Angola next to an unused motel owned by the county, Wednesday, June 5, 2024, in Kent, Washington. The group of about 240 asylum-seekers is asking to use the motel as temporary housing while they look for jobs and longer-term accommodations. (AP Photo/Lindsey Wasson)

KENT, Wash. (AP) — Kabongo Kambila Ringo stood outside the tent where he has been staying with his pregnant wife and ate from a clear plastic tray of Girl Scout cookies melting in the midday sun.

He was one of around 240 asylum-seekers camping in a grassy lot along a highway south of Seattle, wondering if police would follow through on threats to arrest them for trespassing, and hoping officials instead might let them move into the vacant motel next door.

“It's very difficult,” the 29-year-old from Congo told The Associated Press in French. “There's not enough to eat. There's not even a way to wash ourselves.”

The cluster of tarp-covered tents that have covered the field in Kent, a Seattle suburb, since last weekend highlights the strain facing many communities — even some far from the U.S.-Mexico border — as President Joe Biden attempts to restrict asylum and neutralize immigration as a political liability ahead of this fall's election.

Some Democratic-led northern cities have seen huge influxes of migrants. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has sent more than 40,000 asylum-seekers to Chicago, mostly by bus or plane.

The Seattle area has seen fewer, but with homelessness already an immense challenge — nearly 10,000 people sleep outside in King County every night, officials say — even that has stressed the region's capacity.

More than 2,000 asylum-seekers have come through a suburban church, Riverton Park United Methodist in nearby Tukwila, since 2022 after word got out that it was willing to help. The church has made room for hundreds of migrants to stay every night and has raised money to place families in motels.

Hundreds were moved from tents at the church to hotels or other short-term rentals as extreme cold hit over the winter. But as money ran out, they have faced rolling evictions.

Ringo said war forced him and his wife to flee Congo in 2022. They took a ship to Brazil then spent two years walking to the U.S. border in Arizona, where they arrived March 23. He was detained, while his wife was taken to a hospital.

A man he met in detention gave him the church’s address, and when he was released, he said, his brother bought him a plane ticket to Seattle, where he reunited with his wife, now eight months pregnant.

Many of those who have been camping in Kent — primarily migrants from Congo, Angola and Venezuela — previously stayed at the church or were evicted from motels.

Lacking other options and awaiting permission to work in the U.S., they set up camp outside a disused Econo Lodge. The county purchased the 85-room motel during the COVID-19 pandemic as emergency quarantine housing.

“We want to pressure the county and the city to open the hotel for this group of migrants,” said Ian Greer, a volunteer for a coalition of migrant services organizations that has been assisting the asylum-seekers.

Under a legal agreement between the county and the city, the motel can only be used for quarantine housing and other city-approved uses. Officials say they have no immediate plans to open it for the migrants.

“We understand the rationale for the request by asylee seekers to use the hotel in the short term, but the reality of doing so is much more complicated than simply unlocking the doors and turning on the lights,” Kristin Elia, a spokesperson for the King County Executive's Office, said in an emailed statement. “Full operations and capital for an emergency shelter, even in the short term, are beyond the County’s available resources.”

Kent police last weekend posted a 48-hour eviction notice at the encampment, saying the migrants did not have permission to be at the county-controlled property. But as the deadline came and went Tuesday, authorities backtracked, giving the migrants breathing room as they hope for long-term shelter.

Late last year, King County provided $3 million in grant funding to respond to the migrant influx, helping house more than 350 individuals and families. In April, it awarded four nonprofits $2 million to provide shelter, food, legal services and other assistance. When some migrants camped in a Seattle park last month, the city moved dozens of families into motels and is paying for them to remain at least until July.

Beginning next month, a flood of new money from the state should help. The county will receive $5 million to respond to the influx — money officials are still assessing how to use. The state's Office of Refugee and Immigrant Assistance will begin giving out $25 million to nonprofits and local governments to develop a statewide network to support recently arrived migrants.

Riverton Park United Methodist is hoping to raise $200,000 for hotel vouchers by the end of this month, saying that given how long it takes to review spending proposals, the state money might not be available until September.

Children ran around in the steamy grass Wednesday as the sun dried out tents after heavy rains. The facilities consisted of five portable toilets and two hand-sanitizer stations. Larger tents served as kitchen and pantry. Volunteers dropped off food and toiletries. Migrants adjusted tarps and chatted beneath canopies.

Linda Gutierrez recalled leaving Venezuela: “There is no medicine in Venezuela. Our family is dying of hunger,” she said in Spanish. They went first to Colombia, then Chile. When they were forced to leave Chile, she said, they made their way through the perilous Darien jungle — the dense and roadless rainforest that divides South America from Central America — with her children and young grandchildren to the U.S.

They eventually reached Riverton Park United Methodist, where they stayed for five months, she said. They were then placed in a nearby motel, but only for a month.

In the encampment she met Jose Guerrero, from Puerto Cabello — the same area west of Caracas where she lived. Guerrero came to the U.S. with his wife after leaving their three children in the care of grandparents.

“All of us here have been struggling for months," Guerrero said. "My hope is that the mayor, the county, the leaders, open that hotel. As you can see, it’s empty and abandoned. All of us, together, we can maintain it and get it ready to house us.”


Associated Press reporters Manuel Valdes in Kent and Claire Rush in Portland, Oregon, contributed.