Immigration judges have wildly varying rates for granting asylum
By Ruth Morris
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Posted May 10 2007
Most came from the same coastal town in Haiti, and many are related to one another. But when the Haitians who landed recently on Hollywood beach go before the immigration courts to seek asylum in the United States, whether they stay or go largely depends on which judge hears their cases.
That's the conclusion many immigration lawyers have drawn after recent data showed vast differences in the rates at which the nation's 200-plus immigration judges grant asylum. While some judges approve asylum for more than half the detainees who appear before them, others let just a trickle through. The disparity underscores concern by some legal experts who say immigration courts are producing inconsistent asylum decisions, possibly influenced by personal bias.
As most of the Haitians from the March 28 landing enter the asylum process, activists are increasingly concerned that this pattern could work against them, especially since the recent research ranks Judge Rex Ford — the judge most likely to rule on their cases — as one of the toughest in the United States.
Federal officials likely will send Haitians who do not win asylum back to their homeland.”The judge makes a big difference on the outcome. There is quite a bit of discretion allowed in immigration, and with discretion comes the possibility of abuse of that discretion,” said Christine Reis, a lawyer with St. Thomas University's Human Rights Institute.
Reis is among a team of lawyers for the 101 Haitians who survived the crossing and dragged themselves ashore. They note that the men and women are likely to go before Ford because he hears asylum claims at the Pompano Beach detention center where almost all are being held. Authorities took the group there because it serves Broward County and handles interviews that determine whether asylum seekers have a credible fear of persecution in their homeland.
A study by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse of Syracuse University shows that during a five-year period, Ford granted asylum to 10 percent of the 1,758 cases he decided. Of the 224 U.S. immigration judges, just 16 approved fewer asylum applications in percentage terms, according to the study.
This data contrast sharply with results for Judge Denise Slavin, for example, who works out of the Krome Detention Center on the edge of the Everglades. She granted asylum to nearly 60 percent of the 1,406 cases she heard during the same period, the study found. Slavin and Ford saw similar numbers of different nationalities. The largest segment of their workloads involved Haitians, who accounted for 39 percent of Slavin's caseload and 42 percent of Ford's. Colombians were the next largest group for both.
Slavin, who is also president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, said the researchers' data does not reflect the complexity of the immigration court system. For example, she might deny one kind of immigration benefit in favor of another, but her computer might record it as a denial.
In their August report, the researchers looked at decisions from fiscal year 2000 to early 2005.
Slavin said all courts have some degree of variation.
Ford's office referred questions to the Executive Office for Immigration Review, which in turn referred questions to the Justice Department. There, a spokesman said policy prohibits judges from speaking to journalists. He cited a March memo by the office's director saying it had implemented measures to review the disparities among asylum approval rates. These included proposed annual evaluations for judges, but Slavin said the office had yet to present a format for the reviews.
In the meantime, lawyers for the Haitian detainees said 74 percent of the Haitians being held at the Broward Transitional Center have passed credible-fear interviews, where detainees must demonstrate a fear of persecution in their home countries to enter the asylum process.
A few still are waiting for the results of their interviews and two have been rejected. The 16 Haitian minors were not included in the group.
Cheryl Little, executive director of the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center, said authorities have not released any of the group on parole, as lawyers requested, while they build their cases.
For most detainees who arrived by sea, the chance that a judge will release them into the United States while they seek asylum is remote. After a mass Haitian landing in 2002, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft said detainees who landed on U.S. shores would be released only for humanitarian reasons that take into account “exceptional circumstances.” In the past, authorities have freed pregnant women and very sick arrivals.
Andre Pierre, a Haitian-American immigration lawyer who has counseled several of the Haitians from the March landing, said he doubts Justice Department changes will narrow the wide range of rates at which judges grant asylum.
“You have very good judges who listen to the evidence and make a decision based on the evidence,” he said. But, he added, “Most judges believe Haitians are fleeing violence or because they're hungry,” factors that don't meet the standard for persecution.
Those campaigning for greater restrictions on immigration would like to see fewer asylum cases presented in the first place. They describe most cases as last-ditch efforts to avoid deportation.
“Asylum is a very subjective process,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors sharply reduced immigration. “If you're going to have a mechanism that screens asylum claims and tries to weed out those that aren't deserving, you're going to have different rates of approval.”
Ruth Morris can be reached at email@example.com or 305-810-5012.