Study Finds Disparities in Judging of Asylum Cases

By JULIA PRESTON  New York Times  May 31, 2007
Asylum seekers in the United States face broad disparities in the nation’s 54 immigration courts, with the outcome of cases influenced by things like the location of the court and the sex and professional background of judges, a new study has found.
The study, by three law professors, analyzes 140,000 decisions by immigration judges, including those cases from the 15 countries that have produced the most asylum seekers in recent years, among them China, Haiti, Colombia, Albania and Russia. The professors compared for the first time the results of immigration court cases over more than four years, finding vast differences in the handling of claims with generally comparable factual circumstances.

In one of the starker examples cited, Colombians had an 88 percent chance of winning asylum from one judge in the Miami immigration court and a 5 percent chance from another judge in the same court.

“It is very disturbing that these decisions can mean life or death, and they seem to a large extent to be the result of a clerk’s random assignment of a case to a particular judge,? said an author of the study, Philip G. Schrag, a professor at Georgetown University Law Center.

The study offers an unusually detailed window into the overburdened and often erratic immigration courts. Though the immigration bill now being considered does not propose major revisions in asylum laws, those courts serve as the judicial backbone of the immigration system that would take on an immense new workload if the bill becomes law.

The legislation would offer a road to legal status to an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants, eliminate backlogs of legal immigration cases and step up enforcement, among other measures. Experts predict countless legal snags that would land before the immigration judges.

Officials at the Executive Office for Immigration Review of the Department of Justice, which oversees the immigration courts, declined to allow interviews about the study with David L. Neal, the chief immigration judge, citing a policy that immigration judges do not speak with the news media about their rulings.

The study found that someone who has fled China in fear of persecution and asks for asylum in immigration court in Orlando, Fla., has an excellent — 76 percent — chance of success, while the same refugee would have a 7 percent chance in Atlanta. Similarly, a Haitian seeking refuge from political violence is almost twice as likely to succeed in New York as in Miami.

Immigration lawyers acknowledge that the judges have difficult work, with huge dockets of cases that must be decided speedily on the basis of scant or subjective information. Often the asylum seeker is the only witness to crucial events.

But because immigration law is federal, the study’s authors argued, some uniformity could be expected in judges’ asylum rulings across the country, particularly in cases of people fleeing a country, like China or Colombia, where the conditions of political oppression or civil violence are publicly known.

“It’s such a high-volume system where the participants have so little time to test cases and make decisions, you become much more subject to the general viewpoint of the judge,? said Bo Cooper, a lawyer at Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker who is a former general counsel of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. That has created a risk, Mr. Cooper said, that “the system will not be good enough at providing refuge to those in need or identifying the claims of those who are not in need.?

The wide discretion exercised by immigration judges can be disheartening to lawyers and disastrous for immigrants facing threats to their lives if they are forced to return home, immigration lawyers said.

“Oftentimes, it’s just the luck of the draw,? said Cheryl Little, a lawyer and executive director of the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center, a legal assistance group in Miami that represents many asylum seekers. “It’s heartbreaking,? Ms. Little said. “How do you explain to people asking for refuge that even in the United States of America we can’t assure them they will receive due process and justice??

While immigration officers at Citizenship and Immigration Services, the federal agency, can grant asylum, the majority of asylum cases are decided by the immigration judges. Under the immigration system, refugees are foreigners coming from abroad who win residency in the United States for protection from religious persecution or political threats. Asylum is granted to foreigners who apply for refuge when they are already in the United States.

The study is based on data on judges’ decisions from January 2000 through August 2004. It will be posted today on the Web site of the Social Science Research Network,, and published in November in the Stanford Law Review.

In addition to Professor Schrag, the authors are Andrew I. Schoenholtz, also a professor at Georgetown University Law Center, and Jaya Ramji-Nogales, a professor at Beasley School of Law at Temple University.


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