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Politics & Policy

San Francisco grapples with influx of asylum-seekers: ‘It’s never been this busy’

Their days start around sunup, in a cramped room with an expansive view of the Bay. 

Vanessa Puris, 37, and husband Cesar Pisfil, 32, crammed their entire lives into the small space after fleeing shakedowns from a deadly gang in Peru, they said.

Since arriving in San Francisco in mid-July, they’ve shared the gray room with their children Romina, 11, Luana, 9, and Misael, 3, in a Bayview-Hunters Point flat divided among a few other migrant families. 

Weekdays for Vanessa and Cesar usually involve waking up early enough to use the unit’s upstairs bathroom so they can ready their kids for the long day ahead. Romina and Luana attend schools that each require separate multi-transfer bus journeys to reach. 

Cesar takes yet another bus to try his luck for an odd job. Vanessa, meanwhile, hops another Muni route with their littlest one to hit up food pantries, attend English classes or find other forms of help at social service agencies.

On a recent morning, however, their typically divergent routines aligned. 

Instead of parting ways on a few different buses, the family of five boarded the 15-Bayview-Hunters Point Express for a half-hour trek from their hilltop apartment to San Francisco Immigration Court on Montgomery Street. 

As they prepared to leave, Vanessa—seated on one of two beds in the room—said she’s unsure what to expect, but plans to explain why her family needs asylum. She pointed to a stack of documents beside her on the bed that included a written declaration about how they left home for fear of their safety.

“In fact,” she said in Spanish, “I am very afraid.”

A Mounting Backlog

Partisan debate over immigration tends to focus on refugees or the undocumented.

But amid a record global surge in migration, an increasing number of people coming to the U.S. are vying for asylum—a right recognized under international law and the U.S. Constitution. 

Applying for such humanitarian protection is complicated. And the responsibility of processing and caring for people seeking asylum disproportionately falls on so-called sanctuary cities like San Francisco—places that offer more services for migrants and where local police are barred from participating in federal immigration enforcement.

Bill Ong Hing, director of the University of San Francisco Immigration and Deportation Defense Clinic, said he’s worked through historic waves of migration throughout his half-century in the field, but nothing like what the nation’s seeing now.

“I’ve been in immigration law for 50 years,” he said, “and I can tell you it’s never been this busy.” 

Hing, whose law clinic is a member of the San Francisco Immigrant Legal Defense Collaborative, said the network’s dozen-or-so nonprofit law firms are buckling under maxed-out caseloads. The influx stems in large part from the Biden administration implementing a rapid asylum process in 11 cities historically more welcoming to migrants.

San Francisco is one of them.

Dubbed “Dedicated Docket” and launched in May 2021, the federal initiative created an accelerated court for families seeking asylum, aiming to resolve their cases in 300 days—far less than the four-and-a-half-year average they normally take, according to a Syracuse University immigration database that looked at two decades of court filings through 2021.  

“Families arriving at the border who are placed in immigration proceedings should have their cases decided in an orderly, efficient, and fair manner,” Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro N. Mayorkas said in announcing the initiative earlier this year. “Families who have recently arrived should not languish in a multi-year backlog.”

He called the program “an important step for both justice and border security.”

Since Dedicated Docket was rolled out, San Francisco Immigration Court has fielded an influx of more than 4,600 expedited cases through July, according to federal data.

That influx comes atop a mounting backlog in asylum petitions that disproportionately impacts New York, Miami, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Over the past two decades, those four jurisdictions have accounted for just about half of the asylum cases filed in the nation’s 60-plus immigration courts, according to federal data compiled by Syracuse University.

In SF, the backlog of immigration filings overall has grown fivefold in that time frame to nearly 92,000 pending cases.

Though well-intentioned, the sped-up asylum process has turned out to be overwhelming for immigrant service providers, Hing said. 

“We’ve had asylum cases that have been pending for years, and now those cases are getting bumped,” he told The Standard, “because the most recent ones are being treated on an expedited basis.”

About 70% of families on the sped-up docket in Los Angeles lacked counsel, according to a study earlier this year by the UCLA Center for Immigration Law and Policy, and saw some of the worst case outcomes in immigration court.

Of the 449 dedicated docket cases completed by February 2022 in LA, the study found that 99.1% culminated in deportation. 

The overwhelming majority of those removal orders were issued before the families saw their day in court.

“Worst of all,” the study continued, “almost half of those in absentia removal orders (48.4%) were entered against children, nearly two-thirds of whom were age 6 and under, and most of whom had no lawyer.”

Cesar Pisfil, 32, and son Misael, 3, ride Muni from their rented room in Bayview to immigration court in downtown San Francisco on Sept. 14, 2022. | Mike Kuba for The Standard.

‘It Was Not Easy, It Is Not Easy’

As Vanessa prepped for her recent court visit, she said she hoped to make a strong enough case to immigration officials to convince them to grant work permits to her and her husband. 

She said she’d tell them about how back in Peru, her husband was a painter by trade and how she used to run a one-woman shop selling hand-knit children’s clothes. How a local gang began demanding payments and how she initially shrugged them off—until the threats became more frequent and eerily specific. 

“It was almost daily,” she recounts. “The criminals knew where you were walking, what clothes you were wearing, where your kids were or even my husband’s job.”

Vanessa tried to resist the attempted blackmailing, she said—until the gangs vowed to kidnap her 11-year-old daughter and kill Cesar.

“That’s when I said, ‘No, that’s not a lie anymore,’” she recounted. “‘This is real. This is happening to me.’”

So they fled. Quickly. 

“It was not easy,” she said. “It is not easy.”

Neither was the U.S.-Mexico border, where they turned themselves into crowded detention facilities while seeking asylum.

It wasn’t much easier in San Francisco, where they met up with relatives who found them their Bayview room but struggled to help with everything else a family of five needs to survive: food, clothing, legal permission to work.

All of which brings them to this fateful morning, which marks the start of a long legal journey for a family that already traveled 4,500 miles across no fewer than eight international borders to start a new life in the Bay Area. 

“I don’t know what is going to happen,” Vanessa said. 

All she knows is that she can’t go back. 

“If they send me back to my country,” she said, “it’s like I’m going into the lion’s den.”

Vanessa Puris (center) reviews her family’s asylum paperwork outside immigration court on Montgomery Street in downtown San Francisco on Sept. 14, 2022. | Mike Kuba for The Standard

After being released from government custody, aspiring asylees remain in legal limbo under a federal system that allows them to stay in the U.S. while they await the outcome of their case, but offers no designated funding for shelter or services and no expedited permission to work. 

Some migrants end up skipping court dates and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) check-ins, becoming part of the nation’s population of about 12 million undocumented residents. Others show up and report, often submitting to GPS tracking between check-ins, in the hopes of securing a legal right to work.

It usually takes five months to a year for the federal government to grant asylum-seekers job permits. And unlike for refugees, there’s no federal funding to help them get by and keep them off the streets while they wait. 

In San Francisco, that means much of the work caring for asylees and other migrants falls to a constellation of nonprofits such as Good Samaritan, which helps somewhere on the order of 20 to 30 families in a given month navigate bureaucracies and welfare agencies to survive. 

Claudia Cisneros manages the charity’s Family Resource Center, which works with the migrant families—many of them from Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico, El Salvador, Nicaragua and an increasing number from Colombia, Venezuela and Peru. The families who come to the resource center for help with food, childcare and other social services often have nowhere to stay and have only been in the country for fewer than six months. 

“So they are in really high need,” Cisneros said. “They have experienced trauma at the border. The reality is that when they arrive, they don’t have anywhere to go.”

Good Samaritan of San Francisco Executive Director Mario Paz said many of his clients come under false pretenses.

“They get lied to by coyotes, who say things are going to be OK when they arrive,” he said. “And we here on this side, we do our best to support them.”

Many end up living in shelters and find themselves on waitlists for legal representation while juggling myriad appointments with ICE and a maze of other bureaucracies. Some of the families were separated at the border and have children assigned to separate immigration cases.

“Most have no idea how difficult it is to navigate the asylum process,” Cisneros said. “Then, they start learning what it means to live a life of asylum.”

A life that leaves little time to rest. 

Living as a hopeful asylee, even in relatively immigrant-friendly places like the Bay Area, means adhering to a very strict schedule. They need to find work, child care and school. If they sleep at a shelter, they have to leave early in the morning and can’t come back until evening, which means figuring out how to meet court dates, agency appointments and other obligations—often with very young kids. 

For Vanessa and Cesar, it took more time to get ready for their latest immigration check-in than the appointment itself. The family walked in poised to share their story, hoping to land work permits. But they came away with nothing but a new date—six months out. 

With their schedule cleared for the rest of the day, the family boarded the same Muni line and retraced the route back to their room by the Bay. 

Jennifer Wadsworth can be reached at