The indefatigable folks at TRAC Immigration have issued a new report about our nation's Immigration Courts, and the news is not encouraging: Overall asylum denial rates are the highest we've seen in almost two decades. As always with asylum numbers, things are not quite so simple, so let's take a look at what's going on.

Fiscal Year 2018 (which ended on September 30, 2018) was noteworthy for several reasons. First, the asylum denial rate reached 65%. This caps a six year trend of increasing denial rates and represents the highest rate of denial in 20 years (between 1986 and 1999, denial rates ranged from 68% to 89%). In some ways, the news from FY2018 is worse than the average denial rate indicates. If you look at TRAC's month-to-month chart, you can see that denial rates spiked between June 2018 and the end of the fiscal year. Thus, in the last few months of the fiscal year, denial rates were pushing 70%.

A second way that FY2018 stands out is that Immigration Courts adjudicated more asylum cases than any prior year: 42,224. This figure represents significantly more decisions than FY2017 (30,253) or FY2016 (22,318). Indeed, this is the most asylum cases decided in any one year since at least 1986 (I could not find data older than that).

Despite the higher denial rates, there is a silver lining to the news from FY2018: In absolute terms, more asylum cases were granted in that year (14,200) than in any previous year (in FY2017, courts granted 11,591 cases, and in FY2016, they granted 9,714 cases). Of course, the only reason so many cases were granted is because courts are adjudicating record numbers of cases overall. But these days, we takes our good news where we gets it.

These figures raise an obvious question: Why are denial rates so high?

One factor that is (probably) not to blame is the availability of help from lawyers. For the first time since FY2013, representation rates are going up. When people are represented, they are statistically more likely to win their cases. For example, in FY2016, asylum seekers without lawyers were denied 90% of the time; those with lawyers were denied only 48% of the time. While I think this disparity exaggerates the benefit of lawyers (because people with weak cases are often less likely to have representation), it is still pretty clear that having an attorney increases the likelihood of a successful outcome. Given that more people are represented these days, the increased asylum denial rate is likely not caused by an absence of legal council.

A second reason that I suspect is not to blame are the new Immigration Judges hired since the Trump Administration came into office. Since January 2017, the Executive Office for Immigration Review has significantly expanded the number of IJs nationwide. Most likely, this accounts for the increased number of decisions, but we don't yet have data on the "Trump" judges' denial rates. My guess is that the statistics for these new IJs will not differ very much from their more senior colleagues. I could be wrong here, but at least in my experience, the new judges do not seem any tougher than the judges that we have been dealing with for years. Perhaps as they gather more data, TRAC will issue a report about this (and maybe I will be proved wrong - I will be curious to know the answer).

One likely candidate for the increased denial rate is the case Matter of A-B-, 27 I&N Dec. 316 (AG 2018), which was issued by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions this past June. The decision made asylum more difficult for people fearing harm from non-state actors, in general, and for victims of domestic violence, in particular. After Matter of A-B- was issued, there was a corresponding uptick in asylum denial rates. Even before Matter of A-B-, however, asylum denial rates had increased since the end of the Obama Administration (and indeed, they have been increasing since 2012). This increase might reflect less significant developments in immigration case law, as well as the cultural shift that I imagine accompanies any new Administration (and especially an Administration so openly hostile to non-Americans).

When considering asylum denial rates, one important point about A-B- is that the case is limited in scope. Certain aliens--especially people fleeing domestic and gang violence in Central America and Mexico--will be disproportionately affected, but others will not be affected. Given that a large percentage of asylum cases involve Central Americans and Mexicans, a case like A-B- has a visible impact on overall denial rates, even though the impact of the decision is limited to certain types of cases. This means that while changes in the law have affected the denial rate, that effect is an "average," and how a particular case is impacted depends on the facts of that case.

Another contributing factor to the higher denial rate may be that more long-term residents are coming into Immigration Court. This happens because the government is aggressively pursuing aliens without lawful status. It also happens because the Asylum Offices are identifying people who have been in the U.S. for more than 10 years, and trying to refer them to court.

Aliens who have been present in the United States for more than one year are often ineligible for asylum due to the one-year filing bar. There are exceptions to this rule, but it is generally more difficult for such people to win their asylum cases. Many people in this position file asylum as a last-ditch effort to remain in the United States. My guess is that as these long-term residents start to receive decisions, many will be denied, and this will contribute to the overall increased denial rate.

We'll have to see whether the current trend continues. These days, government officials are looking for ways to make asylum more difficult, but they are limited by the law, and so it's not clear how much higher the denial rate can go. When thinking about denial rates, it is important to remember that certain cases--Matter of A-B- cases, one-year bar cases--are probably driving the increase in denial rates. Other cases are less affected. Either way, the environment these days is not easy for any asylum seeker, and so it is more important than ever to gather evidence and present the strongest case possible.

Originally posted on the Asylumist: