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Providing Legal Services to Newly Arriving Asylum Seekers and Migrants 

The Seattle area is not alone in receiving an influx of migrants and asylum seekers over the last few months. Unfortunately, there’s no easy solutions or national model for sheltering and caring for asylum seekers. The expertise required to tackle the issues at hand, including the emergency management, sheltering, transitional and long-term housing, and other resettlement services, are spread across multiple local and State agencies.  

In an effort to address this immediate humanitarian need, our office has served as a vital thought partner and facilitator with the City of Tukwila, King County, the state, and non-profit service agencies to work together toward appropriate and sustainable solutions. Since most immigration policy falls under federal jurisdiction, it’s necessary to facilitate regional discussions to address them effectively at the local level. 

The Seattle City Council made a one-time allocation of $200,000 of General Funds to the Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs (OIRA) to support newly arriving migrants and asylum seekers. In consultations with community-based organizations and migrants themselves, OIRA decided to prioritize this money for funding legal services. 

One of the reasons the City is interested in expanding legal services to asylum seekers is that these services are crucial for obtaining work permits – a major step for migrants on the road to self-sufficiency. Though it might not be commonly known, asylum seekers and migrants, unlike immigrants and refugees, do not have a right to immediate employment in the U.S. They might become eligible to receive work authorization through such immigration programs as Humanitarian Parole, Temporary Protected Status (TPS), or an asylum, but the process is usually lengthy, complex, and hard to navigate without legal help.  

The most common form of immigration relief available to migrants is asylum – protection which allows an individual to remain in the United States instead of being deported to a country where he or she fears persecution or harm. To be eligible to for a work permit, asylum seekers generally have to go through two steps: 

  • File an asylum application (Form I-589) with either U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) or the immigration court. 
  • Wait at least 150 days since filing the asylum application and then file an application for Employment Authorization (Form I-765). 

Acknowledging difficulties of navigating this process for migrants, who usually don’t speak English and are often traumatized before coming into the U.S., OIRA has recently made two investments in legal services and support for migrants and asylum seekers:  

  • First, we allocated $60,000 of OIRA 2023 underspend into a contract with Northwest Immigrant Rights Project to offer direct limited legal services, trainings for service providers, and creating videos and materials focused on the needs of asylum seekers; 
  • Second, in March of 2024 OIRA allocated $151,000 of the $200,000 one-time general fund money to support migrants and asylum seekers to Colectiva Legal del Pueblo (CLP). Under the contract, CLP is planning to assist 100 people with asylum application filings and work permit applications, organize six legal clinics, and offer other legal support services. 
In December 2023, OIRA Director Hamdi Mohamed joined a conversation on Seattle Channel’s City Inside/Out with Riverton Park United Methodist Church Pastor Jan Bolerjack and advocate Palmira Figueroa to discuss efforts to support newly arriving asylum seekers and migrants to our region (main image above also from this episode). 

During the 2024 Washington State legislative session, Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell and OIRA joined other leaders and advocates to successfully advocate for over $32 million in funding to support migrant families and asylum seekers. This funding includes essential services for housing, healthcare enrollment, legal assistance, case management, and education.  

Despite our limited resources and authority, our office has continued to be proactive in working to provide assistance to asylum seekers. Given our strengths and expertise, we are focused on three key areas: 

1. Regional Coordination: We have helped establish an intergovernmental task force with the State. This includes government representatives from all levels—cities, counties, and federal entities. We collaborate to share best practices, develop solutions, exchange information, and address critical issues. 

2. Legal Services to Expedite Self Sufficiency: We did provide funding for temporary stays at hotels and then pivoted to our areas of focus and expertise to enable migrants and asylum seekers to receive employment authorizations and become self-sufficient. Currently, OIRA has two contracts with the legal service providers highlighted above to offer system navigation and legal assistance with filing asylum applications, applications for employment authorizations, and other support legal services.  

3. Legislative Advocacy: We have successfully advocated for and secured the over $32 million mentioned above during the 2024 legislative session. 

For more information about these legal service programs, please contract Oksana Bilobran, OIRA’s legal programs manager, at