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Judge Howard E. Achtsam
FY 2018 - 2023, Harlingen Immigration Court

Published Oct 19, 2023

Judge Achtsam was appointed as an Immigration Judge in July 1986. He received a Bachelor of Arts degree from Queens College, City University of New York, in 1973, and a Juris Doctorate from the State University of New York at Buffalo, in 1976. Judge Achtsam worked as an attorney for the Law Offices of Jones and Crane in Weslaco, Texas, from 1984 to 1986. He was employed by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in Albany, New York, as an attorney from 1976 to 1981. While employed by the NLRB, from 1976 to 1980, he worked for the Division of Advice Section in Washington, DC. He is a member of both the New York and Texas Bars.

Deciding Asylum Cases

Detailed data on decisions by Judge Achtsam were examined for the period covering fiscal years 2018 through 2023. During this period, court records show that Judge Achtsam decided 115 asylum claims on their merits. Of these, he granted asylum for 19, granted 4 other types of relief, and denied relief to 92. Converted to percentage terms, Achtsam denied 80.0 percent and granted 20.0 percent of asylum cases (including forms of relief other than asylum).

Figure 1 provides a comparison of Judge Achtsam's denial rate each fiscal year over this recent period. (Rates for years with less than 25 decisions are not shown.)

Figure 1: Percent of Asylum Matters Denied

Nationwide Comparisons

Compared to Judge Achtsam's denial rate of 80.0 percent, Immigration Court judges across the country denied 60.6 percent of asylum claims during this same period. Judges at the Harlingen Immigration Court where Judge Achtsam decided these cases denied asylum 76.8 percent of the time. See Figure 2.

Judge Achtsam's asylum grant and denial rates are compared with other judges serving on the same court in this table. Note that when an Immigration Judge serves on more than one court during the same period, separate Immigration Judge reports are created for any Court in which the judge rendered at least 100 asylum decisions.

Figure 2: Comparing Denial Rates (percents)

Why Do Denial Rates Vary Among Judges?

Although denial rates are shaped by each Judge's judicial philosophy, denial rates are also shaped by other factors, such as the types of cases on the Judge's docket, the detained status of immigrant respondents, current immigration policies, and other factors beyond an individual Judge's control. For example, TRAC has previously found that legal representation and the nationality of the asylum seeker are just two factors that appear to impact asylum decision outcomes.

The composition of cases may differ significantly between Immigration Courts in the country. Within a single Court when cases are randomly assigned to judges sitting on that Court, each Judge should have roughly a similar composition of cases given a sufficient number of asylum cases. Then variations in asylum decisions among Judges on the same Immigration Court would appear to reflect, at least in part, the judicial philosophy that the Judge brings to the bench. However, if judges within a Court are assigned to specialized dockets or hearing locations, then case compositions are likely to continue to differ and can contribute to differences in asylum denial rates.


When asylum seekers are not represented by an attorney, almost all of them (80%) are denied asylum. In contrast, a significantly higher proportion of represented asylum seekers are successful. In the case of Judge Achtsam, 28.7% were not represented by an attorney. See Figure 3. For the nation as a whole, about 15.7% of asylum seekers are not represented.

Figure 3: Asylum Seeker Had Representation


Asylum seekers are a diverse group. Over one hundred different nationalities had at least one hundred individuals claiming asylum decided during this period. As might be expected, immigration courts located in different parts of the country tend to have proportionately larger shares from some countries than from others. And, given the required legal grounds for a successful asylum claim, asylum seekers from some nations tend to be more successful than others.

The largest group of asylum seekers appearing before Judge Achtsam came from Mexico. Individuals from this country made up 50.4% of his caseload. Other nationalities in descending order of frequency appearing before Judge Achtsam were: Honduras (14.8%), El Salvador (7.0%), Cuba (6.1%), Venezuela (6.1%). See Figure 4.

In the nation as a whole during this same period, major nationalities of asylum seekers, in descending order of frequency, were El Salvador (16.6%), Guatemala (15.1%), Honduras (13.8%), Mexico (9.2%), China (6.8%), India (5.1%), Venezuela (3.2%), Ecuador (3.1%), Cuba (2.4%), Nicaragua (2.3%), Brazil (2.0%), Colombia (1.4%), Cameroon (1.4%).

Figure 4: Asylum Decisions by Nationality
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 trac@syr.edu or call 315-443-3563.