Immigration judges turn down asylum seekers in droves in Fiscal Year 2020

Border Report

Lack of legal counsel handicaps asylum seekers, but judges also biased against migrants of color, advocates say

People who are a part of a caravan of Central American migrants ride in the back of a pickup truck, after the driver offered to give them a lift, on their way to the United States on January 20, 2019 near Escuintla, Mexico. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – Asylum denial rates in America reached a record high 71.6% in the fiscal year 2020, an immigration think-tank reported.

This, as federal immigration judges decided the second-highest number of asylum petitions on record despite partial court shutdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mexicans and citizens from the Northern Triangle of Central America – Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador – were the most likely to be turned down. Those who presented their petitions in Texas, Georgia and southern California had high denial rates, as well. Four judges in Atlanta turned down 98 out of 100 asylum claims presented to them; nine judges in Houston said no 95% of the time.

And whether the individual fleeing gang violence in San Pedro Sula or official oppression in Venezuela had legal representation also made a big difference in the outcome of his or her case, according to research from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.

“As has been true in earlier years, having representation greatly increases the odds of winning asylum or other relief,” TRAC’s Oct. 28 report says. “The odds of being successful if unrepresented was much lower (17.7%) than for represented asylum seekers (31.1%) in fiscal year 2020.”

Graphic courtesy TRAC

Coincidence or not, denial rates have shot up more than 30% since Donald Trump became president. According to TRAC, denial rates were at 54.6% in fiscal year 2016 (the last full year of Barack Obama’s presidency). This year’s 71.6% denial rate excludes those who didn’t win asylum but were granted a stay of removal, otherwise it’d be even higher.

Groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center allege the Attorney General’s Office has “weaponized” the nation’s asylum courts against immigrants of color.

“Overwhelming evidence shows that the (AG’s Office) has long allowed immigration judges to violate noncitizens’ rights in a systemic, pervasive manner that undermines the integrity of the court system,” the SPLC said in a scathing June 2019 report. “Judges fail to apply binding legal standards, make decisions based on illegally invented rules, engage in abusive treatment of noncitizens and their counsel and even decide cases before holding hearings.”

The asylum appeal process is equally politicized, the group says.

Getting asylum seekers legal assistance

Nationality and filing a case with the right judge played a role in cases were asylum was granted, according to the data.

Chinese nationals won asylum almost 77% of the time in 2020, followed by people from India (62%), Cameroon (61.6%), and Venezuela (54.3%). And three judges in San Francisco said “yes” to more than 90% of asylum seekers who came to their courts in 2020.

Central American migrant children pose at a warehouse used as a shelter in Piedras Negras, Coahuila state, Mexico on February 10, 2019. Around 1,700 migrants traveling by caravan reached the US-Mexican border. The local mayor, Claudio Bres Garza, said the city would welcome “all those who behave themselves,” after Coahuila’s Governor Miguel Angel Riquelme vowed not to accept more undocumented migrants in the state. (JCA/AFP via Getty Images)

But the bulk of asylum seekers who came during the 2018-2019 migrant surge were Central Americans. And according to the Department of Homeland Security, most of those coming across the border without authorization since are from Mexico.

In 2020, of the 30,173 individuals from the Northern Triangle that received a decision on asylum claims 27,020 were denied. Of the Mexicans, 5,196 of the 6,113 who applied were told to go back home.

Graphic courtesy TRAC

El Paso federal immigration judges denied 85.4% of asylum claims in fiscal year 2020.

Robert S. Hough had the highest denial rate (92.2%), according to TRAC. Stephen M. Ruhle approved the highest number of petitions (44) but still found wanting 76.8% of the petitions he ruled on.

William L. Abbott decided the largest number of cases (344) in fiscal year 2020 and denied 89.2% of them (307).

A demonstrator holds a sign during a pro-migrants protest in Brownsville, Texas last year. (Border Report file photo)

Knowing that providing legal advice to asylum seekers can make a difference, one El Paso nonprofit applied for and got two private grants to provide these services.

One grant from Dallas-based Meadows Foundation includes $56,000 for legal services for incarcerated petitioners. Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Services officials say the money will be used to try to win cases for migrants in an El Paso facility with 26 confirmed COVID-19 cases as of October.

“Having legal representation increases the chances of winning an asylum case five-fold,” said Melissa M. Lopez, executive director of the El Paso-based nonprofit.

A grant from El Paso Bar Foundation provides an additional $3,700 for the agency’s Removal Defense unit. The money will be used in partnership with the Loretto Volunteer Project to help migrants, including those sent to Juarez, Mexico under U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Migrant Protection Protocols, or MPP, program.

Some of those asylum seekers told Border Report recently they hope their chances will improve once Joe Biden takes over the White House. But they’re not holding their breath.

“I will believe things when they happen, if they happen,” one Cuban migrant who’s been living in Juarez said last week.

Visit the BorderReport.com homepage for the latest exclusive stories and breaking news about issues along the United States-Mexico border.

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