Asylum Denial Rates Continue to Climb

Despite the partial court shutdown during the COVID-19 pandemic, this year immigration jud­ges managed to decide the second highest number of asylum decisions in the last two de­cades. The rate of denial continued to climb to a record high of 71.6 percent, up from 54.6 percent during the last year of the Obama Administration in FY 2016. See Figure 1.

Figure 1. Immigration Court Asylum Decisions by Outcome, FY 2001 - FY 2020
(Click for larger image)

Outcomes here include whether asylum was granted or if another form of relief such as with­holding of removal or relief under the Convention Against Torture was granted when asylum itself was denied. The picture would be slightly worse if just the decision on asylum was tallied. During FY 2020, 73.7 percent of immigration judge decisions denied asylum, and asylum itself was granted just 26.3 percent of the time.

Representation Important Yet Slipping

As has been true in earlier years, having representation greatly increased the odds of winning asylum or other relief. As shown in Figure 2, the odds of being successful if unrepresented was much lower (17.7%) than for represented asylum seekers (31.1%) in FY 2020. This does not, of course, reflect immigrants who wanted to seek asylum but were precluded from doing so because—unable to obtain an attorney—they were also unable to fill out the necessary asylum paperwork to even apply.

One contributing factor to the increase in asylum denial rates was that the proportion of asylum seekers who were unable to find attorneys rose. In FY 2019 just 15.6 percent were unrepresented. This increased to 20.0 percent in FY 2020.

Figure 2. Outcomes for Unrepresented vs Represented Asylum Seekers, FY 2020
(Click for larger image)

Figure 3. Percent of Asylum Applicants Without Representation,
FY 2019 vs FY 2020
(Click for larger image)

Asylum Decisions by Nationality

While asylum seekers from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras led the list of countries who sought asylum and had their cases decided during FY 2020, Chinese nationals led the list of those granted asylum in larger numbers than any other nationality group. Figure 4 shows the top ten countries with the largest number of asylum decisions in FY 2020, broken down by whether asylum was granted or denied.

The odds of success in receiving asylum or an alternative form of relief continued to vary greatly by the asylum seeker's nationality. Among the ten countries with the largest number of asylum decisions, Hondurans had the least success with 87.3 percent of applicants who were denied. Those from Guatemala had the second lowest success rate, with 85.8 percent denied, followed by Mexicans whose asylum applications were denied 85.0 percent of the time.

Chinese applicants, in contrast, had the highest success rates among the top ten nationality groups. Less than one out of four (23.3%) applicants from China had their asylum applications denied. Asylum seekers from India had the next highest success rate. Only 38.0 percent of their applications were denied. Cameroon nationals were close behind India in third place with 38.4 percent of their asylum applications denied. Table 1 provides a detailed breakdown of statistics for each of the top 10 nationality groups.

Figure 4. Top Ten Nationalities Seeking Asylum by Outcome, FY 2020
(Click for larger image)
Nationality Number by Outcome Percent Denied Percent Granted*
Decisions Denied Granted*
Guatemala 11,539 9,902 1,637 85.8% 14.2%
El Salvador 10,598 8,675 1,923 81.9% 18.1%
Honduras 9,673 8,443 1,230 87.3% 12.7%
Mexico 6,113 5,196 917 85.0% 15.0%
Cuba 3,741 2,264 1,477 60.5% 39.5%
China 2,712 633 2,079 23.3% 76.7%
India 2,017 766 1,251 38.0% 62.0%
Venezuela 1,813 828 985 45.7% 54.3%
Cameroon 1,579 606 973 38.4% 61.6%
Nicaragua 1,070 658 412 61.5% 38.5%
* Granted Asylum or Other Relief
Table 1. Top Ten Nationalities Seeking Asylum by Outcome, FY 2020

Judge-by-Judge Differences in Asylum Decisions

The outcome for asylum seekers continued to depend on the identity of the im­mi­gration judge assigned to hear the case. The New York Immigration Court led the country in having the widest disparity among judges serving on the same court. De­pen­ding upon the judge, denial rates ranged from 95 percent down to 3 per­cent.

Comparisons for other districts can be seen here. TRAC's annual update of its individual judge-by-judge asylum decision report series accompanies the release of this report. These latest updates cover FY 2015 through FY 2020.

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.