Asylum Decisions Vary Widely Across Judges and Courts - Latest Results

The most recent asylum decisions through FY 2019 have been compiled in 456 newly released judge-by-judge asylum decision reports. These reports examine 179,848 asylum decisions across 59 immigration courts.

Included in this report series are judges who decided at least 100 asylum decisions at an immigration court they served on during fiscal years 2014 through 2019 (i.e. October 1, 2013 to September 30, 2019). A judge may have more than one report if they served on more than one immigration court during this period.

The Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University annually compiles these updated reports based on case-by-case court records provided by the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) in response to the center's Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) monthly requests. These asylum decisions cover both affirmative asylum cases referred to the court by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) as well as all defensive asylum cases. These reports do not cover affirmative asylum cases decided by USCIS.

Visualizing Asylum Denials Across Courts and Judges

To help understand patterns in the asylum decision data for this report, TRAC created a visualization (Figure 1 below) which shows several variables at the same time in a way that is not possible in a traditional table or graph. Each circle on the graph represents a single Immigration Judge. The size of the circle represents how many cases the judge decided during the past six years. The vertical red line represents the denial rate across all cases decided by these judges at each court.[1] This approach allows the reader to simultaneously see: each judge's rate of denial, the impact of their denial rate based on the volume of cases, the distribution of denial rates within a single court and across courts, the denial rate of each judge compared to their court, and a comparison of the aggregate denial rates of each court compared to all courts. Although the chart does not include the names of each judge, the identity of judges is listed in this table upon which this chart was based.

We also provide a PDF version of this graph.

Figure 1. Asylum Denial Rates by Immigration Court and Judge
(Click for larger image)
(PDF version)

Five Immigration Courts Decide Half of All Asylum Cases

The geographic distribution of asylum cases across immigration courts is highly uneven. Just five immigration courts - New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Houston, and Miami - decided half (85,837, or 48%) of these asylum cases. Although just over 60 percent of all asylum applications were denied in this period, slightly less than half of applications - just 49 percent - in the top five courts were denied. This is mostly due to the balancing effect of comparably low denial rates in New York (26%) and San Francisco (30%) in contrast to much higher denial rates in Houston (92%) and Miami (86%) and a more moderate denial rate in Los Angeles (71%). See Table 1.

Table 1. Immigration Courts With The Most Asylum Cases
Immigration Court Completed Cases Denial Rate Number of Judges
New York 39,140 26.10% 46
Los Angeles 12,343 71.30% 44
San Francisco 12,110 29.50% 36
Houston 11,243 91.90% 15
Miami 11,001 86.10% 25
85,837 (total) 49.4% (average) 166 (total)

Twelve immigration courts accumulated denial rates above 90%. This included Jena, a small court with two judges, where 99 percent of 397 asylum applications - and 100 percent of Judge Crooks' 226 cases - were denied. It also included larger courts: Atlanta denied over 97 percent of over 2,000 asylum applications, Las Vegas denied 93 percent of its 2,000 applications, and Conroe denied 92 percent of just over 850 applications. In contrast, only seven immigration courts deny less than 50 percent of cases: Newark (49%), Phoenix (48%), Chicago (47%), Boston (42%), Honolulu (31%), San Francisco (30%), and New York (26%).

These top five busiest courts discussed above include 166 Immigration Judges - roughly a third of all judges - working at an average pace of about 86 asylum cases per year[2]. Of the 27 judges with over 1,000 completed cases, 20 work in one of these five courts. Houston and New York are home to the three judges with more than 2,000 decisions - Judges Endelman, Bhagat, and Laforest - who collectively decided nearly 7,100 cases during this six year period, as many as the 61 judges with the least decisions on record combined. In contrast to judges in the busiest five courts, the remaining two-thirds of judges completed an average of 54 asylum cases per year. Outliers such as Judge Parchert in Seattle and Judge Williams in Baltimore, who completed, on average, 284 and 245 cases per year respectively, buck this trend.

Immigration Judges and Asylum Denial Rates

To grant or deny an asylum application is among the most consequential decisions an Immigration Judge makes. For this reason, understanding how asylum decisions vary across time, across courts, and across judges is of wide interest. However, it is important to keep in mind that grant and denial rates are influenced by a variety of factors beyond a judge's control. These factors include:

  • the quality of the underlying asylum case;

  • applicant's access to an attorney, criminal histories, and detention status;

  • judges' access to quality interpretation and support staff, the type of a judge's docket (e.g. juvenile, detained, rocket-docket), and productivity expectations;

  • the characteristics of incoming asylum applications, including the nationality of asylum applicants and applicants' accumulated time in the United States;

  • Congressional limitations on judicial discretion;

  • the enforcement policies and priorities of the current administration; and

  • the legal precedents set by the Attorney General, the Board of Immigration Appeals, and the federal Circuit Courts.

Despite these contextual factors, meaningful comparisons can be made among judges serving on the same court if the court randomly assigns cases to judges. Because TRAC's reports require at least 100 decisions per judge, with random case assignment this should ensure that judges serving on the same court will have decided an equivalent mix of cases. This means that if judges' grant or denial rates depart from one another within the same court, then these differences cannot be explained on the basis of differences in the worthiness of their cases. Instead, one or more other factors - such as the pre-existing predilections of the judge assigned - must then be the source for these disparities in grant and denial rates.

Comparisons of judges' asylum decisions sitting on different courts are more difficult to make because the composition of their caseloads can differ. Nonetheless, Immigration Judges continue to have considerable discretion over whether to grant or deny asylum applications. It remains true that where an immigrant files for asylum and which judge is assigned to that case can play an influential - even determinate - role in the asylum decision reached.

For More Information

The detailed data on asylum outcomes behind this report is available on TRAC's interactive Asylum Decisions app. To see how asylum denial rates have increased to record highs in FY 2019, see TRAC's recent report Record Number of Asylum Cases in FY 2019. TRAC's annual update of its individual judge-by-judge asylum decision report series accompanies the release of this report.


[1] These averages cover judges that decided at least 100 asylum cases. Asylum decisions made by judges that decided less than this number were not included in these calculations.

[2] Averages assume that judges served for the entire six years. Given the pace of new judge hiring, resignations and retirements, many judges did not serve for the entire period. Asylum cases also made up an increasing proportion of the court's workload over this six-year period. Thus, even for a judge serving for the entire period, asylum decisions are unlikely to be spread evenly across these years.

TRAC is a nonpartisan, nonprofit data research center affiliated with the Newhouse School of Public Communications and the Whitman School of Management, both at Syracuse University. For more information, to subscribe, or to donate, contact or call 315-443-3563.