Asylum Success Varies Widely Among Immigration Judges

The United States has received a large number of asylum-seekers in recent years, and the responsibility of deciding many of those cases falls on the shoulders of Immigration Judges[1]. By examining variation in the total number of asylum cases decided by Immigration Judges as well as variations in the rate at which judges approve or deny asylum applications, the public can better understand how the U.S. asylum system works in practice.

TRAC's data for this report, which encompasses 223,469 total asylum decisions from 62 Immigration Courts and 492 Immigration Judges for six fiscal years from 2016 and 2021 (inclusive), show that asylum outcomes continue to vary significantly from judge to judge and from court to court[2].

Figure 1 shows the ranges in asylum denial rates for each Immigration Court, represented as the lowest asylum denial rate to the highest asylum denial rate of Immigration Judges assigned to the court. The data here only include judges who have issued decisions in at least 100 asylum cases according to Immigration Court records[3].

As the composition of cases and the ability of asylum seekers to obtain representation varies from one court to another, one cannot meaningfully compare asylum decisions between judges sitting on different courts. When we compare the decisions of judges sitting on the same bench, however, the situation is different. When individual judges handle a sufficient number of asylum requests, random case assignment will result in each judge being assigned a roughly equivalent mix of "worthy" cases. To the extent that asylum cases are assigned randomly within an individual Immigration Court (as the EOIR claims[4]), we can meaningfully focus on the extent of differences in asylum denial rates for judges within the same Court.

Clearly, the impact of judge assignment matters more in courts with larger ranges than those with smaller ranges. That is, in courts with smaller ranges, such as Sacramento or Atlanta, it may matter less which judge is assigned to an asylum case given that judges appear to deny cases at relatively similar rates. On the other hand, in courts like Chicago or New York City, where the range of denial rates is much larger, the judge assigned to a case may matter much more.

Figure 1. Asylum Denial Rate Range for Immigration Courts, FY 2016-2021
(Click for larger image)

Half of All Asylum Cases Decided by Just Six Immigration Courts

As shown in Table 1 below, asylum cases are not distributed across the country evenly. Nearly half of all asylum decisions (48%) made during this time period were issued by Immigration Judges at just six Immigration Courts, including those in New York, San Francisco, Miami, Houston, Los Angeles, and Baltimore. Judges in New York City alone issued nearly 16 percent (or 34,986) of all asylum decisions, almost twice the number of the next busiest Immigration Court in San Francisco, which issued decisions in 18,500 asylum cases. The median[5] number of cases decided by all 62 Immigration Courts is 2,025.

Larger courts with more judges do not necessarily have larger ranges. Certainly courts in New York, San Francisco, and Baltimore—which are included in the list of six largest courts in the country—are shown on the graph to each have a considerable range of denial rates among judges. However, Houston and Miami, also in the top six largest courts, have relatively smaller ranges despite having large numbers of Immigration Judges.

Understanding Immigration Judge Variation

Asylum is a discretionary form of relief from deportation over which individual Immigration Judges exercise considerable authority. Therefore, the rate at which Immigration Judges grant or deny asylum cases remains an important area of research and public discussion. Based on TRAC's updated data, the majority of Immigration Judges (60%) have an asylum denial rate of 70 percent or higher. More than one in five have an asylum denial rate of over 90 percent, while just two percent (9 judges total) have a denial rate of less than 10 percent. Over 80 percent of all immigration judges are more likely to deny an asylum case than to grant one.

However, as noted above, comparing judges who hear cases in different Immigration Courts can present a very misleading picture since the nature of asylum cases often vary markedly from one Immigration Court to the next. For instance, as TRAC reported recently, asylum outcomes vary widely depending on nationality, language, age, and to some extent gender, as well. Asylum seekers from China, which makes up the largest single group of asylum seekers over the past two decades, are successful in more than 65 percent of cases, while Mexican nationals are successful in only 15 percent of their cases. Even among asylum seekers from the same country, asylum seekers vary in their rates of success based on language use. For instance, Guatemalan asylum seekers whose recorded best language was Kekchi were denied asylum 93 percent of the time, much higher than Mam speakers' denial rate of 57 percent, more than 35 percentage points lower. When Immigration Judges dockets include more asylum seekers with certain demographic characteristics—which may be based, for instance, on where asylum seekers locate in the United States—it may lead to higher rates of asylum approval.

The impact of differences in the composition of asylum cases in different Courts across the country is illustrated by differences in the denial rates of the same judge who has been assigned to more than one Court over the time period of this study.

Altogether, 492 Immigration Judges meet TRAC's threshold of having issued decisions in at least 100 asylum cases. But because Immigration Judges may have been assigned to more than one Court during this six year period, there were 61 Immigration Judges who served on more than one Immigration Court. For these judges with multiple Courts, the total asylum cases decided and their denials rates are associated separately with each Court in TRAC's judge reports.

The Immigration Court to which judges are assigned appears to play a role—sometimes significant and sometimes minimal—in the asylum denial rates of judges. For instance, when Judge Jennifer M. Riedthaler-Williams was on the bench at the San Francisco Immigration Court, the judge's asylum denial rate was just under 14 percent. But after moving to the Cleveland Immigration Court, the judge's asylum denial rate approached 95 percent—an 80-point difference. Similarly, Judge Margaret Kolbe denied just 27 percent of asylum cases while at the New York Immigration Court. But once she moved to her current position in the New York detained court at Varick Street—in the same city—the judge's asylum denial rate increased to 82 percent.

By contrast, when Judge Munish Sharda moved from Las Vegas to Phoenix, the judge's asylum denial rate remained consistent, dropping only a point from 97 percent to 96 percent. To the extent that the composition of cases, or the inherent worthiness of their asylum claims, may be similar in the two Courts, then one would not expect a judge's denial rate to change. Most Immigration Judges were somewhere in the middle of these extremes, with the median percentage point difference between the highest and lowest asylum denial rates around 9 points.

Figure 2 below shows the minimum and maximum asylum denial rate for Immigration Judges who were assigned to more than one Court over the time period of this study. Note that while 57 Immigration Judges appeared in two Courts, four judges—Judge Tara Naselow-Nahas, Judge David H. Burke, Judge Lisa De Cardona, and Judge Steven J. Connelly—served at more than two Courts.

Figure 2. Asylum Denial Rate Range for Judges Who Worked in More Than One Immigration Court
(Click for larger image)

More Judge-by-Judge Asylum Data Available

TRAC's individual judge-by-judge asylum reports provide more in-depth information about each judge's professional background, asylum grant rates compared to their peers in the same Court and judges nationwide, and important contextual information about the nationalities and representation rates of asylum-seekers in their courtroom. TRAC's Immigration Judge reports have been updated with the release of this report and can be found here: Immigration Judge Reports - Asylum. A table with each Immigration Judge's total asylum cases decided as well as asylum denial and approves rates can be found here: Judge-by-Judge Asylum Decisions in Immigration Courts FY 2016-2021.

Table 1. Asylum Case Outcomes by Immigration Court, FY 2016-2021*
Immigration Court Asylum Decisions Number of Judges** Judge Denial Rate
Lowest Highest
New York 34,986 51 5% 95%
San Francisco 18,500 41 8% 95%
Miami 15,371 29 73% 99%
Houston 14,476 19 89% 100%
Los Angeles 14,220 42 37% 95%
Baltimore 9,686 15 10% 91%
Arlington 8,389 24 8% 96%
Chicago 5,395 16 17% 91%
Orlando 5,290 10 75% 96%
Boston 4,454 11 22% 85%
Seattle 4,337 7 55% 87%
San Antonio 4,304 16 39% 98%
Memphis 3,644 7 58% 98%
Philadelphia 3,471 10 40% 75%
Los Angeles - North 3,344 8 78% 100%
San Diego 3,301 10 73% 96%
Charlotte 3,210 7 83% 99%
West Valley 2,981 3 75% 87%
Dallas 2,782 7 69% 97%
Adelanto 2,762 10 49% 91%
Las Vegas 2,666 8 72% 97%
Newark 2,654 12 17% 93%
Atlanta 2,588 9 91% 99%
New Orleans 2,563 5 83% 96%
New York - DET 2,441 10 44% 89%
Bloomington 2,363 12 46% 93%
Denver 2,306 7 51% 90%
Miami - Krome 2,218 7 85% 96%
Hartford 2,168 3 63% 80%
Portland 2,076 5 45% 81%
Cleveland 2,029 9 79% 95%
Lumpkin 2,021 7 82% 97%
Tacoma 1,960 5 60% 84%
Kansas City 1,939 3 83% 94%
Eloy 1,882 7 38% 97%
Omaha 1,796 5 82% 98%
Los Fresnos 1,675 6 82% 95%
Detroit 1,582 4 72% 85%
Honolulu 1,574 2 28% 40%
Conroe 1,429 9 54% 98%
Pearsall 1,414 5 68% 83%
Buffalo 1,410 5 62% 96%
Elizabeth 1,314 5 48% 81%
Chaparral 1,275 4 54% 98%
Phoenix 1,188 8 18% 96%
Jena 1,153 6 90% 97%
Tucson 1,125 3 75% 82%
Otay Mesa 1,035 6 61% 83%
Aurora 1,002 3 54% 76%
Harlingen 949 7 71% 93%
Oakdale 916 4 78% 99%
Imperial 795 4 59% 77%
El Paso - EPD 598 3 76% 88%
Van Nuys 517 3 71% 96%
Florence 473 3 67% 92%
Batavia 368 3 76% 96%
Sacramento 300 2 36% 43%
Louisville 206 2 94% 97%
Houston - Gessner 201 1 96% 96%
Atlanta - ATD 145 1 99% 99%
Guaynabo 133 1 32% 32%
El Paso 119 1 99% 99%
* Covers all judges who made at least 100 asylum decisions at a particular Court.
** Judges who served on more than one Court and made at least 100 asylum decisions at each Court are counted in this table under each of these.


[1] Immigration Judges are tasked with the responsibility of deciding which non-citizens are allowed to stay in the United States, and which will be ordered deported. These judges work in Immigration Courts located across the country that fall under the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) in the Department of Justice. The data in this report does not separately cover hearing locations that fall under each Court. For general asylum grant and denial rates by hearing location but without judge-specific breakdowns, go to our free web-query tool covering all asylum decisions decided on their merits by Immigration Judges.

[2] 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). These asylum decisions cover both affirmative asylum cases referred to the court after being denied by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) as well as all defensive asylum cases.

[3] These judges account for 91 percent of all asylum decisions during this six-year period.

[4] Sometimes judges at the same Immigration Court are assigned to handle a specific type of case, such as asylum seekers on the new Dedicated Docket, detained immigrants, or juveniles. When this occurs, then a judge's grant and denial rates will naturally be affected by their distinctive mix of cases.

[5] The median number of cases decided by the courts is the number at which half of the courts decided more cases and half of the courts decided fewer cases.

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.