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How WA plans to use $32 million to help asylum seekers


How WA plans to use $32 million to help asylum seekers

Jun 14, 2024 | 8:46 pm ET
By Grace Deng
How WA plans to use $32 million to help asylum seekers
Riverton Park United Methodist Church, where hundreds of migrants have been sheltering in recent months. (Grace Deng/Washington State Standard)

Washington officials are working to distribute around $32 million in state funding this year to aid asylum-seekers, as hundreds of migrants live in tents in the Seattle area. 

Of the $25 million allocated to the Office of Refugee and Immigrant Assistance, $20 million will go to community organizations to create a statewide network to deliver coordinated support to migrants and asylum-seekers. 

The state is using what’s known as a “hub and spoke model” for its Washington Migrant and Asylum Seeker Support Project. The refugee office is reviewing applications for one primary organization to act as the “hub” connecting new arrivals to the specific services they might need. 

Those services should include immigration-related legal aid, housing and “culturally responsive case management services,” said Sarah Peterson, chief of the state Office of Refugee and Immigrant Assistance. 

“We’re seeing this happen across the country, where high numbers of newcomers are arriving, non-citizen migrants are arriving, and are needing additional services,” Peterson said. 

Another $1 million will go to schools serving asylum-seeking students who are homeless. With the school funding, $250,000 is available for costs incurred from July 1, 2023 through June 30, 2024 and $750,000 for costs between July 1, 2024 and June 30, 2025. 

The Office of Refugee and Immigrant Assistance has selected Shelton, Tukwila and Wapato school districts to receive the first round of funding based on how many homeless students enrolled in their schools between January 2022 and early spring 2024 that did not speak English as their first language. 

Districts can’t ask for immigration documentation, so using those categories was the best way to determine how many asylum-seekers might be enrolled in a district, Peterson said. 

While the funds were approved by the Legislature in March, they won’t be available for use until July and it will take some more time for the agencies involved to distribute the dollars, Peterson said. Some money is also set aside for emergency housing, but the office is still working on a plan for those funds and doesn’t have a timeline for when they’ll be used.

“I think part of the intent of these resources was to not be an emergency response,” Peterson said. “It was intended to look at infrastructure and see what infrastructure was needed to provide support services for these individuals.”

“While we recognize that there is urgency and an emergency, the idea is more about building a system and a welcoming network of organizations,” she added.

The state also allocated $5 million to King County and $2.5 million to the city of Tukwila, where hundreds of asylum seekers have been sleeping outside Riverton Park United Methodist Church since early 2023. Those dollars are being handled by the Department of Commerce, which expects to finalize contract details with the county and city by next week, according to Penny Thomas, an agency spokesperson. 

Applications to receive funding through the Office of Refugee and Immigrant Assistance closed on Thursday, and the office hopes to have contracts in place with participating organizations by Aug. 1. 

The Washington Immigrant Solidarity Network, which campaigned for the $25 million for the Office of Refugee and Immigrant Assistance, said they appreciated the amount of work the office did to listen to asylum seekers and community organizations. 

The timeline for grant applications is fast for smaller organizations, said Vanessa Reyes, policy manager at the immigrant network, but she said she understood officials were trying to balance the urgent need with how much time organizations would need to prepare applications. 

Reyes said she’s hopeful about the state’s plan, but has heard from partners that many may not have the capacity and resources to participate. However, the Office of Refugee and Immigrant Assistance said they’ve received “a lot of interest” and are working to provide technical assistance for the smaller organizations. 

“In the meantime, folks are still trying to respond the best they can by providing the services they still have capacity for,” Reyes said. “We’ve been in the same space for over a year now.”