Last fall, the Asylum Division cancelled its quarterly stakeholder engagement meeting and postponed the release of data about the various Asylum Offices. Now, finally, that information has been released. The news is generally bad (who would have guessed?), but the data contains some bright spots and surprises--as well as a few mysteries. Here, we'll take a look at the most recent news from our nation's Asylum Offices.

First, the data. The Asylum Division has released statistics for FY2019, which ended on September 30, 2019. The data shows that despite the Trump Administration's hostility towards asylum seekers, many people continue to seek protection in the United States--through the fiscal year, a total of 82,807 new affirmative asylum applications were filed (and remember that some of these cases include dependents, so I imagine the total number of people filing for asylum in FY2019 is well over 100,000). Case completions are still not keeping up with new filings, and the overall asylum backlog continues to grow: From 323,389 at the beginning of the fiscal year, to 339,836 at the end. Throughout the year, the number one source country for new asylum cases was Venezuela. China was number two for most of the year, followed by Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Mexico.

In terms of grant rates, the news is fairly negative, but not uniformly so. As an arbitrary base-line, I will use a post I did in February 2016 about Asylum Office data from the second half of FY2015 (April to September 2015). I calculated the percentage of cases granted at each Asylum Office. In crunching the numbers, I discounted cases that were denied because the applicant failed to appear for an interview, but I included cases that were denied solely because the applicant failed to meet the one-year asylum filing deadline. I've made the same calculations for the period April to September 2019, and compared the grant rates for both time periods in the chart below.

{"data-align":"none","data-size":"full","height":"239","width":"356","src":"http:\/\/\/wp-content\/uploads\/2020\/02\/Chart-1-2019.png"} Whenever a lawyer does math: Beware!

As I mentioned, I did not include "no shows" in my data. For this reason, government statistics about the asylum grant rate will be lower than my numbers, since they include people who failed to appear for their interviews. If I had included "no-shows," the FY2019 grant rate in Arlington would be only 19.5% (instead of 26.5%, as shown in the chart). The New York grant rate would drop to a paltry 7.1%, and the grant rate in San Francisco--the "best" asylum office--would fall to a still-respectable 54.0%. Arguably, it makes sense to include "no shows," since some people may not appear due to no fault of their own. However, I chose to leave them out, since I suspect most have either found other relief or have left the country, and I don't think it is useful to evaluate Asylum Offices based on denials where the applicant never appeared for an interview.

One problem with my comparison is that there are more asylum offices today than there were in 2015. The two new offices are Boston and New Orleans. The Boston office was previously a sub-office of Newark, and the New Orleans office was part of the Houston office (though in truth, I am not sure whether all of New Orleans's jurisdiction was covered by Houston, or whether some was covered by Arlington). To account for this, the first numbers listed for Houston and Newark for FY2019 is the percentage of cases granted in that office. The numbers in parenthesis for Houston and Newark include cases that would have been within the jurisdictions of those offices in FY2015 (i.e., the New Orleans cases are included with Houston and the Boston cases with Newark). Thus, the parentheticals are useful only for comparison with the FY2015 numbers; if you are just interested in the percentage of cases granted in Houston and New Orleans in FY2019, look only at the first number.

{"data-align":"none","data-size":"full","height":"251","width":"370","src":"http:\/\/\/wp-content\/uploads\/2020\/02\/Cahrt-2-2019.png"} The same chart, but here, I have removed one-year bar denials (reminder: Beware!!).

As you can see, there is an overall decline in the grant rate at most offices. In some cases, this decline is quite significant. One office--Houston--bucked the trend and actually granted a higher percentage of cases than in FY2015.

But perhaps things are not quite as bad as they appear. The numbers in the first chart include cases denied solely because the applicant failed to file asylum on time (remember that you are barred from asylum unless you file within one year of arriving in the U.S. or you meet an exception to that rule). In the second chart, I factored out cases that were denied solely because they were untimely (the Asylum Offices have been identifying late-filed cases and interviewing them; unless the applicant overcomes the one-year bar, the case is referred to Immigration Court without considering the merits of the asylum claim; since they are interviewing many such cases, this is pushing overall denial rates up). Comparing the two fiscal years in chart two, the decline in grant rates is much less severe. Indeed, three offices granted a higher percentage of timely-filed cases in FY2019 than in FY2015.

So what's happening here? Why did grant rates generally decline? Why did some offices improve? What does all this mean for asylum seekers?

First of all, these numbers must be taken with a big grain of salt (and not just because I am an incompetent mathematician). A lot is going on at each Asylum Office. Different offices have different types of cases, including different source countries, greater or fewer numbers of unaccompanied alien children ("UAC") cases, and different policies in terms of interviewing untimely applicants. As a result, some offices may be interviewing more "difficult" cases, while other offices are interviewing more "easy" cases. Offices that interview many Central American cases, or many UAC cases, for instance, will likely have lower grant rates than other offices. This is because Central American cases and UAC cases are more likely to be denied than many other types of asylum cases. Also, some offices are more aggressive than others in terms of identifying and interviewing untimely asylum cases. Offices that interview more late-filed cases will likely have a higher denial rate than offices that interview fewer late-filed cases.

Despite all this, it is fairly clear that the overall trend is negative. One obvious reason for this is a series of precedential cases and policy changes during the Trump Administration that have made it more difficult for certain asylum seekers, particularly victims of domestic violence and people who fear harm from Central American gangs. In addition--and I think this is probably less of a factor--the leadership at DHS and DOJ has repeatedly expressed hostility towards asylum seekers and encouraged the rank-and-file to identify and deny fraudulent applications.

Finally, as my colleague Victoria Slatton points out, it's possible that the negative trend is worse than what the numbers above reflect. In FY2015, the Asylum Division gave priority to UAC cases. Since such cases are more likely to be denied, interviewing more of them may have pushed the overall grant rates down. In FY2019, UAC cases were not given priority, meaning that (probably) fewer UACs were interviewed. All things being equal, fewer UAC cases should mean a higher overall approval rate, but that is not what happened at most Asylum Offices. This may mean that more non-UAC cases are being denied today than in FY2015.

As you can see, there are a lot of moving parts, and a lot is going on behind these numbers. In one important sense, though, things have not changed much in the last four years. Strong cases still usually win; weak cases often fail. For asylum seekers (and their lawyers), we can only control so much of the process. Submitting a case that is well prepared, consistent, and supported by evidence will maximize your chances of success. And as the numbers above show, success is still possible even in these difficult times.

Originally posted on the Asylumist: