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Judge Joseph T. Leonard
FY 2018 - 2023, Harlingen Immigration Court

Published Oct 19, 2023

Attorney General Jeff Sessions appointed Joseph T. Leonard to begin hearing cases in October2018. Judge Leonard earned a Bachelor of Arts in 1999 from Texas A&M University and a JurisDoctor in 2002 from the University of Texas School of Law. From 2008 to 2018, he served as anassistant U.S. attorney at the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Texas, first inBrownsville and later in McAllen. From 2005 to 2008, he was an assistant district attorney inHidalgo County, Texas. In 2005, he was an attorney in private practice. From 2003 to 2005, hewas an assistant county attorney in Williamson County, Texas. From 2002 to 2003, he was anassociate with Fitzbaugh & Elliott, P.C., in Houston. Judge Leonard is a member of the State Barof Texas.

Deciding Asylum Cases

Detailed data on decisions by Judge Leonard were examined for the period covering fiscal years 2018 through 2023. During this period, court records show that Judge Leonard decided 117 asylum claims on their merits. Of these, he granted asylum for 27, granted 16 other types of relief, and denied relief to 74. Converted to percentage terms, Leonard denied 63.2 percent and granted 36.8 percent of asylum cases (including forms of relief other than asylum).

Figure 1 provides a comparison of Judge Leonard'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 Leonard's denial rate of 63.2 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 Leonard decided these cases denied asylum 76.8 percent of the time. See Figure 2.

Judge Leonard'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 Leonard, 50.4% 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 Leonard came from Cuba. Individuals from this country made up 20.5% of his caseload. Other nationalities in descending order of frequency appearing before Judge Leonard were: Mexico (17.9%), Venezuela (17.1%), Honduras (15.4%), Guatemala (11.1%). 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.