Published Oct 19, 2023
Attorney General William P. Barr appointed Matthew J. O’Brien as an immigration judge inJune 2020. Judge O’Brien earned a Bachelor of Arts in 1991 from the Johns Hopkins University,a Juris Doctor in 1995 from the University of Maine School of Law, and a Master of Arts in2018 from the Institute of World Politics. From 2016 to 2020, he served as the director ofresearch at the Federation for American Immigration Reform. From 2014 to 2016, he served as asupervisory immigration officer, Headquarters Component, Fraud Detection and NationalSecurity Directorate (FDNS), U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), Departmentof Homeland Security (DHS), in the District of Columbia. From 2011 to 2014, he served as asenior advisor to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Ombudsman, DHS, in theDistrict of Columbia. From 2008 to 2011, he served as supervisory policy analyst, Headquarters,FDNS, USCIS, DHS, in the District of Columbia. From 2003 to 2008, he served as assistantchief counsel, Institutional Hearing Program, Office of Chief Counsel, Office of the PrincipalLegal Advisor, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, DHS, in New York. From 1997 to 2003,he was in private practice, in Boston and New York. From 1996 to 1997, he served as a districtadjudications officer with the former Immigration and Naturalization Service, Department ofJustice. Judge O’Brien is a member of the Massachusetts State Bar.
Detailed data on decisions by Judge O'Brien were examined for the period covering fiscal years 2018 through 2023. During this period, court records show that Judge O'Brien decided 272 asylum claims on their merits. Of these, he granted asylum for 16, granted 1 other types of relief, and denied relief to 255. Converted to percentage terms, O'Brien denied 93.8 percent and granted 6.3 percent of asylum cases (including forms of relief other than asylum).
Figure 1 provides a comparison of Judge O'Brien's denial rate each fiscal year over this recent period. (Rates for years with less than 25 decisions are not shown.)
Compared to Judge O'Brien's denial rate of 93.8 percent, Immigration Court judges across the country denied 60.6 percent of asylum claims during this same period. Judges at the Arlington Immigration Court where Judge O'Brien decided these cases denied asylum 55.8 percent of the time. See Figure 2.
Judge O'Brien'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.
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 O'Brien, 3.3% were not represented by an attorney. See Figure 3. For the nation as a whole, about 15.7% of asylum seekers are not represented.
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 O'Brien came from El Salvador. Individuals from this country made up 55.5% of his caseload. Other nationalities in descending order of frequency appearing before Judge O'Brien were: Honduras (25.4%), Guatemala (14.3%), Ethiopia (1.5%), Syria (1.1%). 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%).