Immigration judges in Miami are about half as likely on average to grant asylum to refugees as their peers in 14 other U.S. cities, according to a national study that identified ”amazing disparities” in the handling of immigration cases.
The study, which analyzed 140,000 decisions by 225 immigration judges and took particular aim at the nation’s busiest courts, found that Miami’s 21 immigration judges on average granted 23 percent of the requests that came before them. The national rate was 40 percent.
Haitian asylum seekers — the top nationality by volume in Miami — fared even worse: 15 percent were granted asylum, according to figures provided by one of the study’s authors.
Asylum seekers who live in Central Florida fared better: The immigration court in Orlando granted 49 percent of its applications.
The study, posted Thursday on the website of the Social Science Research Network, covered cases from January 2000 to August 2004 from the countries with the most asylum claims — including Albania, China, Colombia, Haiti, India, Pakistan and Venezuela.
The authors of the report called the findings troubling, noting that asylum cases can often ”spell the difference between life and death.” They argue that the cases should be more uniformly settled.
”Whether an asylum applicant is able to live safely in the United States or is deported to a country in which he claims to fear persecution is very seriously influenced by a spin of the wheel,” the report stated. “That is, by a clerk’s random assignment of an applicant’s case to one asylum officer rather than another, or one immigration judge rather than another.”
The Refugee Roulette study was conducted by Jaya Ramji-Nogales, a professor at the James E. Beasley School of Law at Temple University in Philadelphia, and Philip Schrag and Andrew Schoenholtz, law professors at the Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, D.C.
In reviewing applications from nationals from the same country, the study found ”remarkable variations” in decisions, even among judges in the same court.
For example, Colombian asylum applicants whose cases were tried in Miami had a 5 percent chance of succeeding with one judge and an 88 percent of succeeding before another judge in the same building.
One judge in Miami granted only 3 percent of the claims before him; others granted 75 percent, 61 percent and 38 percent, respectively. The findings underscored a survey last year which found that Miami immigration Judge Mahlon F. Hanson turned down about 97 percent of asylum requests. That same survey also found that Sandra Coleman denied 22 percent of claims, Pedro Miranda turned down 79 percent and Nancy McCormack denied 81 percent of claims.
A spokesman for the Department of Justice, which oversees the immigration courts, said the cases can’t be compared to each other because each one “is a complex matter with its own set of unique facts and circumstances.”
And spokesman Charles Miller added, ‘The statistics cited in the report may correctly show that an immigration judge denied asylum to an alien, but that judge also may have granted a different type of `relief’ to that same alien, [thereby permitting him or her to remain in this country].”
Advocates for those seeking asylum acknowledged the judges often have overwhelming caseloads and little time to issue decisions.
”Victims of torture, human trafficking and other forms of persecution are entitled to a fighting chance to make their case, but all too often, the cards are stacked against them,” said Cheryl Little, executive director of the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center. “All too often, lawyers believe they’re just trying their case for appeal.
”It’s troubling when whether you obtain justice for your client can depend on the judge before you, regardless of the strength of the case,” she said.
The survey suggested that one explanation for the differences between the courts could be “simply cultural . . . some courts are more likely to grant asylum claims while other courts . . . are especially tough on all asylum seekers.”
The analysis also found that asylum seekers with attorneys were more likely to win their cases, as were those who had spouses or children.
And it found that the gender of the judge had a ”significant impact” on the likelihood that asylum would be granted. Female immigration judges granted asylum at a rate of 54 percent, while male judges granted asylum at 37 percent.
Prior work experience also made a difference. Judges who had worked in immigration enforcement — with the former Immigration and Naturalization Service or the Department of Homeland Security — were less likely to grant asylum.
Though a former senior aide to U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales testified last week that federal immigration judges were screened for their political leanings, the survey found that variables such as which president appointed the judge to the bench had ”less significant effects” on their asylum-granting rate.
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