For years, practitioners and academics have complained about inconsistent decisions at the Asylum Offices and the Immigration Courts, and there's plenty of data to back up this concern. Recently, two sets of cases in my office brought this problem home, and illustrated how luck impacts who receives protection in the U.S. and who does not.

The first set of cases involves two siblings whose uncle was a well-known member of the political opposition. As a result of the uncle's activities in the early 2000's, his siblings--including my clients' father--were all arrested and held in jail for years. Thus, for a good portion of their childhood, my clients grew up without their father. After he was released, the father resumed his life and his children (my clients) eventually came to the United States to study. While they were here, the father was re-arrested for seemingly pretextual reasons. Fearing for their own safety, the siblings filed for asylum. Both cases were referred to Immigration Court, and the siblings hired me for their cases. As far as I could tell, the cases were exactly the same. Neither sibling had engaged in political activity; both cases were based on the relationship with their high-profile uncle and the home government's persecution of the entire family. Also, we submitted the same evidence in each case and both applicants were found credible. The only difference between the two cases is that the siblings had different Immigration Judges. The first case was before a judge with a 62% denial rate and the second case was before a judge with a 91% denial rate (according to TRAC Immigration). We won the first case and DHS did not appeal,. So in a sense, the second case was different in that one sibling had already been granted asylum. Unfortunately, that was not enough. DHS opposed asylum in the second case (even though they had not appealed the grant in the first case) and the IJ denied relief. The case is currently on appeal.

The second set of cases involves members of a religious minority who faced persecution by their government and by extremists in their country. These cases were before the Asylum Office. The lead applicants were all related, either as siblings or in-laws, they were members of the same congregation back home, and they faced mostly the same persecution. Also, we submitted similar evidence in each case and all the applicants were deemed credible. Out of four cases in 2019 and 2020, we received three grants and one denial. The main difference between the four lead applicants was that the person who was denied had the strongest case due to past imprisonment in his country. Also, the denied case was the most recent decision, and so we had informed the Asylum Office that other family members were granted asylum on basically the same facts. In the denied case, the Asylum Office found that the applicant suffered past persecution, but found that country conditions had changed, such that the situation was now safe. It seems odd that the Asylum Office would find changed country conditions in one case, but not the others. The referred case is now before an Immigration Court.

So here we have two situations where the applicants presented nearly identical cases, but received different results. Why did this happen? As far as I can tell, the reason is luck: Some adjudicators are more likely to grant asylum than others, and this gives us inconsistent results. Also, some adjudicators seem to be inconsistent from one case to the next, in that their mood at a given moment may influence their decision. And so, the outcome of a case is dependent--at least in part--on the luck of the draw.

This is obviously not a good thing. While I agree with former Chief Immigration Judge MaryBeth Keller that we "don’t want decisions on asylum made according to mathematical formulas as if by computers," I do think disparities are a serious problem, which should be addressed at the policy level. But what can individuals do about the problem of luck in asylum cases?

In thinking about this question, I am reminded of Reinhold Niebuhr's Serenity Prayer--

G-d, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

But how do we know what we can change? Some things are obvious: We can gather the evidence needed for a case, make an appropriate legal argument, try to weed out inconsistencies, prepare testimony beforehand, dress appropriately for court, etc. For those who can afford it, having a competent attorney can make a big difference. For those who cannot afford legal help, securing pro bono (free) assistance is important (though finding pro bono help is often not easy).

Some things are harder to control. For Immigration Court, it is possible to get an idea about the asylum grant rate for your particular judge (for newer judges, data may not be available). If you find your judge has a particularly high denial rate, you might consider moving to a new jurisdiction in order to change venue to a different court, where you will hopefully get a better judge. I rarely recommend this option to my clients, as moving is largely a crap shoot--the IJ may refuse to transfer the case, you may end up with a worse judge despite the move (and a judge who may be "bad" for most applicants might be "good" for certain types of cases), and you may substantially delay the case. Also, of course, moving to a new state is disruptive and expensive. Despite all this, if you have a particularly difficult judge, it may make sense to try to move the case.

Forum shopping is even less useful for cases at the Asylum Office. While there is some data about the overall grant rates for the different offices, there is no information available about the individual Asylum Officers. Even if such data existed, it would be of little value, since you won't know who your Officer is until the day of the interview, when it is too late to switch. While it is possible to move to a jurisdiction with an "easier" Asylum Office, given all the variables, this often makes little sense. On the other hand, if you have the flexibility to live anywhere, why not live somewhere with a good Asylum Office?

For the most part, then, you are stuck with your adjudicator, but you have a fair bit of control over the case you present. In my experience, it is more productive to focus on the case itself, rather than worry about who will decide that case. In the end, the absence of control is a fact of life for asylum seekers and for us all. Perhaps a quote from another of my favorite theologian--Saint Augustine--provides an appropriate conclusion here: Pray as though everything depends on G-d. Work as though everything depends on you. At least in this way, you cover all your bases.

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