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Hundreds of asylum seekers camp near Seattle. Next to it is an empty motel

KENT, Wash. (AP) — Kabongo Kambila Ringo stood outside the tent where he was staying with his pregnant wife and ate from a clear plastic container of Girl Scout cookies that melted in the afternoon sun.

He was one of about 240 asylum seekers camped on a grassy field along a highway south of Seattle. He wondered whether police would follow through on threats to arrest them for trespassing, and hoped officials would instead let them move into the vacant motel next door.

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

The cluster of tarpaulin-covered tents that have blanketed the field in Kent, a Seattle suburb, since last weekend underscores the pressure many communities — even some far from the U.S.-Mexico border — are facing as President Joe Biden tries to limit asylum and neutralize immigration as a political liability ahead of this fall’s elections.

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

Cases are down in the Seattle area, but with homelessness already a huge challenge — nearly 10,000 people sleep outside every night in King County, officials say — even that has strained the region’s capacity.

Since 2022, more than 2,000 asylum seekers have entered through a suburban church, Riverton Park United Methodist in nearby Tukwila, after it became known it was willing to help. The church has made room for hundreds of migrants to stay overnight each night and has raised money to place families in motels.

Hundreds were moved from tents near the church to hotels or other short-term rentals as winter hit during the extreme cold. But when the money ran out, they faced continued evictions.

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

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

Many of those who have camped in Kent – ​​mainly migrants from Congo, Angola and Venezuela – previously stayed in church or were evicted from motels.

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

“We want to put pressure on the province 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 to the migrants.

“We understand the reason for asylum seekers’ request to use the hotel at short notice, but the reality of this is much more complicated than simply unlocking the doors and turning on the lights,” said Kristin Elia, the king’s spokesperson. County Executive’s Office, said in an emailed statement. “The entire operations and capital for an emergency shelter, even in the short term, is beyond the county’s available resources.”

Kent police placed a 48-hour eviction notice on the encampment last weekend, saying the migrants were not allowed to be on the county-controlled property. But as the deadline passed and passed on Tuesday, authorities backtracked, giving the migrants breathing room in hopes of long-term shelter.

Late last year, King County provided $3 million in grants to respond to the influx of migrants, helping to house more than 350 individuals and families. In April, it awarded four nonprofits $2 million for shelter, food, legal services and other assistance. When some migrants camped out in a Seattle park last month, the city put dozens of families in motels and paid for them to stay there until at least July.

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

Riverton Park United Methodist hopes to raise $200,000 for hotel vouchers by the end of this month. Given the time needed to assess the spending proposals, the state money may not be available until September.

Children ran around in the steamy grass on Wednesday as the sun dried out the tents after heavy rain. The facilities included five portable toilets and two hand sanitizing stations. Larger tents served as kitchens and utility rooms. Volunteers dropped off food and toiletries. Migrants adjusted sails and chatted under the awnings.

Linda Gutiérrez remembered leaving Venezuela: “There are no medicines in Venezuela. Our family is starving,” she said in Spanish. They first went to Colombia and then to Chile. When they were forced to leave Chile, she said, she and her children and young grandchildren made their way through the dangerous jungle of Darien – the dense and roadless rainforest that divides South America from Central America – to the US.

They eventually made it to 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.

At the camp 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 province and the leaders open that hotel. As you can see it is empty and deserted. All of us together we can maintain it and make it ready to accommodate us.”

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

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