The Immigration Law Clinic and students from SAI Justice rallied the UW Law community to support King County’s asylum-seeker crisis at a local church.

For the past year, a humanitarian crisis taking place inside Riverton Park United Methodist Church in Tukwila has accelerated to a fever pitch. Hundreds of unhoused immigrants descended upon the church in need of shelter, housing and assistance in seeking asylum. They have filled the church grounds, hallways and corners from Angola, Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Venezuela.

Fleeing their native countries from governmental abuses, political persecution, economic instability, violence and human rights violations, asylum-seekers seek refuge and relief, but find themselves in circumstances where they lack access to public services. They have restricted access to federal public benefits and their benefits at the state and local level are likewise restricted.

“At multiple systemic and institutional levels, immigrants were being abandoned to traverse through the complexity of their situation without any help,” said Wendy Roman, J.D. ‘24. “When Student Advocates for Immigrant Justice (SAI Justice) first heard about the vast need in Tukwila, we felt the urgent and overwhelming call for assistance, and we shared in the dismay over the government’s lack of action.”

The crisis caught the attention of local and national media and turned the originally unsuspecting church — the location of which rapidly spread through word of mouth — into a community crisis center.

By April, the Seattle Times reported that the church reached maximum capacity at 500 — with over 1,000 registering at the church since April 2023 — and that Reverend Jan Bolerjack was turning away new arrivals. “The church did not ask nor advertise for people seeking an avenue to stay in the U.S., and its pastor is bewildered why people continue to be referred here from out of state,” the Times reported.

SAI Justice and Associate Teaching Professor Georgina Olazcon Mozo, director of the Immigration Law Clinic, put out a call at UW Law for assistance. Over 80 students responded to train and assist at clinics for asylum seekers, and Olazcon Mozo conducted a 2.5-hour training for volunteers.

Asylum must be applied for within one year of entry, and an application timestamp starts work eligibility for people to begin providing for their families. The goal was to process applications for those approaching the one-year deadline.

Through two clinics held in William H. Gates Hall on February 10 and 26, 2024, UW Law students helped complete 72 applications for asylum. Immigration attorneys from Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, Kids in Need of Defense (KIND), Legal Council for Youth and Children (LCYC) and American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) showed up to review the applications. They were joined by undergraduate volunteers, church volunteers and volunteer interpreters. Professors and administrators responded as well with empathy, labor and funding.

UW Law students also registered to provide asylum application support on Saturday, May 20 at a former bank building near the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

Administrative volunteers watched a training video before the clinic and then helped transfer client-provided information to an I-589 asylum application before sitting down with clients to verify that information was accurate, often using an interpreter. The review process took 2–4 hours, after which an immigration lawyer reviewed a hard copy and then joined the volunteer, client and the interpreter for another 1-3 hours to finalize and sign the application.

Registered student organizations (RSOs) at UW Law made a $550 donation to Riverton Church to purchase necessary items for arriving refugees. The Student Bar Association, UW Law’s DEI Committee and the William H. Gates Public Service Program provided funding to cover printing expenses and to purchase food for volunteers.

“We are incredibly thrilled by the results of our shared efforts … a monumental lift that can be accomplished with some grit and energy,” said Roman.

In addition to providing legal assistance, community members also have volunteer opportunities related to tutoring, a food bank and donating items.

“Isn’t it uplifting to see the resources of UW Law unleashed to meet our community’s pressing legal needs?” said Kim Ambrose, teaching professor and director of the Tools for Social Change: Race and Justice Clinic in an e-mail. “[These asylum clinics] were not part of Georgina’s clinical teaching — it was just an add-on [learning experience]. She says that the students from SAI Justice were really the motivating force, and it wouldn’t have happened without them, especially the leadership of rising 3L Lucy Arnold, Ciera Phung-Marion, J.D. ’24, and Wendy Roman, J.D. ‘24.”

As for the future, Olazcon Mozo has plans to establish a permanent pro se clinic at UW Law with SAI Justice. “It has been one of my goals to establish a community clinic even before we got involved in the asylum clinics for Riverton Church,” she said. “So, this is a project that I will continue to work on, probably with SAI Justice as they have been instrumental in this effort. Our plans for the next asylum clinic will resume probably next fall,” said Olazcon Mozo.

She believes the effort to establish a permanent pro se clinic in the school is extremely important because it provides a great learning experience and opportunity for UW Law to work with community stakeholders, building its reputation in the community. “Our students are ready to do the work. They want to respond to the needs of the community and use the skills they are learning to make a positive impact,” she said. “Their learning experience includes client interviewing skills and communication, document preparation and drafting, among other exposures.”

Roman was encouraged by the outpouring of UW Law community support and the tie to real-time advocacy. “When our faith in systems fails us, our faith in each other cannot. I believe our natural tendency and our instinct is to help,” she said. “Through the [legal] profession, we can make real, viable change in a person’s life as long as we’re willing to jump into the fray, as long as we are willing to get our boots on the ground, and as long as we are willing to show up for each other.”

Community Call to Action