To paraphrase Forrest Gump, Immigration Court is like a box of chocolates; you never know what you're going to get. Also, some of the chocolate is poison.

For many applicants in Immigration Court, the most important factor in determining success is not the person's story or the evidence or the quality of their lawyer. It is the judge who is randomly assigned to the case. According to TRAC Immigration, a non-profit that tracks asylum approval rates in Immigration Court, Immigration Judge ("IJ") approval rates vary widely. For the period 2017 to 2022, asylum approval rates ranged from 0% (a judge in Houston) to 99% (a judge in San Francisco). Of the 635 IJs listed on the TRAC web page, 125 granted asylum in less than 10% of their cases. At the other extreme, nine IJs granted asylum more than 90% of the time.

Based solely on these numbers, there is a 20% chance (1 in 5) that your IJ denies at least 90% of the asylum cases that he adjudicates. That's pretty frightening. But there is much more to the story, which we will explore below.

First, the raw TRAC data does not distinguish between represented and unrepresented applicants, and having a lawyer generally makes a difference. Overall, represented applicants were denied asylum in 64% of cases. Unrepresented applicants were denied asylum more frequently--in 83% of cases. So if your IJ sees many cases where the applicant does not have an attorney, her overall denial rate is likely to be higher than if most of her cases have lawyers. To find this information, go to the TRAC website, click on the judge's name, and scroll almost to the bottom of the IJ's individual web page. You will see the percentage of cases before that IJ where the asylum applicant had an attorney. If you see that your judge presides over many unrepresented cases, it probably means that her overall denial rate is higher than would be expected if that IJ saw more cases where the applicant had a lawyer. What does this mean? Basically, if you are before such a judge, and you have an attorney, your odds of success are probably better than the judge's overall denial rate would suggest. Conversely, if you do not have an attorney, your odds of receiving asylum are probably lower than the judge's overall denial rate would suggest.

A second big factor that is relevant to each IJ's denial rate is country of origin. People from certain countries are more likely to be denied, and so if your judge sees many people from those countries, his overall denial rate will be pushed up. You can see country-of-origin information if you click on your judge's name and scroll to the very bottom of his web page. The countries that have had the highest denial rates over the past two decades are: El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, and Mexico. And so if your IJ has many cases from these countries, his overall denial rate will likely be higher. Meaning that if you are not from one of these countries, your odds of winning asylum are probably better than what your judge's overall denial rate would suggest.

A third important factor in examining IJ approval rates is the distinction between detained and non-detained asylum applicants. Certain judges have "detained dockets," meaning that they rule on cases where the applicants are detained. Such people have a much more difficult time winning asylum: Some are barred from asylum due to criminal history or the one-year asylum bar. Others just have a more difficult time preparing their cases because they cannot easily gather evidence while detained. For these reasons, judges who decide many detained cases will generally have a lower overall asylum approval rate. Unfortunately, the TRAC data does not distinguish between detained and non-detained cases, and it is not always easy to know whether an IJ's record includes detained cases (EOIR has a website that gives some details about each court, including whether that court is located at a detention facility).

While the TRAC data is not perfect (and there is no data on the newest IJs), it is the best source of information we have on Immigration Judge grant rates. Do keep in mind that the numbers only tell part of the story, and it is important to consider the above factors, as well as any other information you can gather from immigration lawyers and asylum applicants about your IJ.

What if you've done your research and have concluded that your judge is one of those who denies almost every case she sees? There are a few options.

One: You can go forward with the case and hope for the best. Sometimes a strong case can overcome a judge's tendency to deny, and after all, even the worst IJs grant cases now and again (except for the 0% guy in Houston).

Two: You can ask for prosecutorial discretion and try to get the case dismissed. Except for cases where the noncitizen has a criminal or security issue, DHS (the prosecutor) is often willing to dismiss. Assuming you can get the case dismissed, you can then re-file for asylum at the Asylum Office (yes, this is a ridiculous waste of resources, but people are now doing it all the time). If you pursue this option, make sure to read the Special Instructions for the form I-589, as you will most likely be required to file your form at the Asylum Vetting Center.

Third: You can move. If you move to a new state (or at least a new jurisdiction within the same state), you can ask the IJ to move your case. Typically, you file a Motion to Change Venue. If the judge agrees, your case will be moved to a different court where you will hopefully land on a better IJ. Judges (and DHS attorneys) do not always agree to allow you change venue, especially if you are close to the date of your Individual Hearing or if you have previously changed venue in the past. And so if you plan to move your case, the sooner you make the move, the better.

Most Immigration Judges will do their best to evaluate the evidence and reach a fair decision. But some IJs seem intent on denying no matter what, and these judges are best avoided, if at all possible. Thanks to TRAC, you can get an idea about whether your IJ is one of these "deniers," and this will help you decide how best to proceed in your case.

Originally posted on the Asylumist: