A recent article in the Washington Post discusses the case of Santos Chirino, a Honduran man who sought asylum in the United States after gang members threatened him for testifying against one of their own. Immigration Judge Thomas Snow found that Mr. Chirino did not qualify for asylum or other relief, and ordered him deported. Eight months after he returned home, Mr. Chirino was shot dead at a soccer match.

Mr. Chirino's is a sad and sympathetic case. But the fact is, his story tells us nothing about whether Judge Snow made the wrong decision. In fact, our asylum system is designed so that a certain percentage of those properly ordered deported will be harmed or killed in their home countries. Let me explain.

To win asylum, an applicant must demonstrate that he faces at least a 10% chance of "persecution" (serious harm or death) in the home country (this statement is a simplification, but for our purposes, it works just fine). Mathematically speaking, applicants who demonstrate a 9% chance of harm should be deported. If 100 such individuals are deported, we would expect nine of them to be persecuted upon their return.

As a conservative and cautious person, I do not like these odds. If you tell me that my airplane has a 9% of crashing, there's no way in hell I'm getting on board. I'll take the bus, thank you very much.

The situation is even more grim for people--such as Mr. Chirino--who do not qualify for asylum, but who still fear harm. Some people are ineligible for asylum because they committed crimes; others, like Mr. Chirino, are barred because they failed to file within one year of arriving in the U.S. and failed to meet an exception to that rule; still others are blocked because the harm they face is not "on account of" a protected ground (race, religion, nationality, particular social group or political opinion). Such people can apply for other, lesser, forms of relief: Withholding of Removal and relief under the United Nations Convention Against Torture ("CAT"). But to qualify for protection under these laws, an applicant must demonstrate that she will "more likely than not" suffer persecution or torture in the home country. In other words, that the likelihood of harm is greater than 50%.

This means that under our system, applicants for Withholding or CAT who demonstrate a 49% chance of being persecuted or tortured should properly be deported. Again, if 100 such people are deported, we can expect 49 of them to be harmed. This is not very comforting for asylum applicants or their families, or for people like Judge Snow who work in the system and are tasked with enforcing the law.

There's another side to this coin, however. That's the case where the adjudicator grants relief, and then the person commits a bad act inside the United States. Fortunately, such cases are rare, and it has been pretty-well demonstrated that immigration to the United States has a neutral or positive effect on crime rates (this makes sense given the strict vetting process for immigrants). But there are glaring exceptions, and these tend to get significant attention. One recent case involved a Salvadoran teen accused by DHS of membership in MS-13. Last summer, an Immigration Judge found the evidence against him insufficient and ordered him released from custody. A month later, he helped commit a brutal murder. Once again, the Immigration Judge may have made the "right" decision, but the end result was tragic.

So in a sense, Immigration Judges are caught between the Charybdis of granting relief and the Scylla of denying. But to me, that is not really their problem. We live in an imperfect world, and we have an imperfect asylum system. Judges operate within that system and hopefully follow the law to the best of their ability. If a particular asylum seeker has demonstrated a 9% chance of harm, the judge should deport that person. That is the law, and if we don't like the law, we should try to change it.

In Mr. Chirino's case, the tragedy is compounded by the fact that his denial was likely a result of failing to meet the nonsensical one-year filing deadline. Had he filed on time, or met an exception to the one-year bar, his case would have been evaluated under an easier standard, and he might have been granted relief. Again, this is a problem with the law, not the judge, and it is up to us to change laws that we do not like.

Several years ago, I was speaking with Judge Snow, who I consider one of the best and most thoughtful judges I know. I was thinking about applying to be an Immigration Judge, and I asked him how he handles hard cases, those where his sympathies lie with the applicant, but where relief was legally unavailable. He told me that in such cases, he does his best to follow the law, even when it is difficult. That is a judge's duty, and I have little doubt that that is what Judge Snow did in the case of Santos Chirino.

I suppose all this goes to show that what works for “the system” does not necessarily work for the individual. One could argue that Mr. Chirino was an innocent martyr of our asylum system. He and many others have died or been persecuted so that our humanitarian immigration system might exist. It is important for all of us to be aware of these sacrifices, and to work towards a more perfect and just system.

Originally posted on the Asylumist: www.Asylumist.com.