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Fiscal year 2018 broke records for the number of decisions (42,224) by immigration judges granting or denying asylum. Denials grew faster than grants, pushing denial rates up as well. The 42,224 decisions represented a 40 percent jump from decisions during FY 2017, and an 89 percent increase over the number of asylum decisions of two years ago.

In past year, 65% of cases received asylum denials.  This is the sixth year in a row that denial rates have risen. Six years ago the denial rate was just 42.0 percent. See Figure 1. (For year-by- year figures, see Appendix Table 1 at the end of this report.)

Figure 1. Immigration Court Asylum Decisions
FY 2001 – FY 2018
(Click for larger image)

What Do Immigration Court Asylum Grant and Denial Rates Really Mean?

Immigration judges’ decisions on asylum applications are not necessarily the same as the outcome of each case. A asylum denial does not automatically result in a deportation order. The individual could have qualified for some other form of relief, or was otherwise found by the immigration judge to not be deportable and was accordingly allowed to remain in the country.

Currently the government does not publish or provide public access to data that would allow complete tracking of the final outcome from all asylum cases. This occurs in part because multiple agencies are involved, often with separate tracking systems. Only a partial portrait is therefore available from Immigration Court data.

The situation is particularly confusing for unaccompanied children from Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and other countries that do not directly border this country. While the Immigration Court generally has jurisdiction over their cases, their actual applications for asylum are typically submitted directly to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). If asylum officers at USCIS determine they are entitled to asylum, the Immigration Court will use the USCIS decision as a basis for closing the child’s case. However, the decision to allow them to remain in the country will not be recorded as a grant of asylum in the court’s records. This is because court records only separately track asylum decisions made by immigration judges.

Table 1 compares case outcome in FY 2018 for the top four nationalities seeking asylum, and compares these with asylum grant and denial rates.

Table 1. Asylum Grant and Denial Rates and
Overall Immigration Court Case Outcomes in FY 2018
Asylum Decision Grant/Deny All Asylum Applications All Immigration Court Cases
Number Granted Number Outcome:
Can Remain in U.S.
Number Outcome:
Can Remain in U.S.
All Nationalities 42,224 35.0% 64,974 39.2% 215,569 33.2%
El Salvador 8,232 23.5% 12,073 31.1% 28,665 37.6%
Honduras 6,240 21.2% 8,745 23.9% 30,242 27.2%
Guatemala 6,052 18.8% 9,214 24.9% 37,571 26.2%
Mexico 5,379 14.5% 10,896 33.5% 65,792 24.7%

Note that for El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala the proportion allowed to remain in the country is higher than the asylum grant rate. As a result, the proportion of those allowed to remain in the country is somewhat higher than the simple grant and denial rate suggests.

Of course, not all individuals from these three countries apply for asylum in Immigration Court. The last two columns in Table 1 include the outcome for all Immigration Court cases. The proportion of those allowed to stay from these three countries is somewhat higher even than on those submitting asylum applications to the court.   This partially reflects the inclusion of favorable outcomes for many unaccompanied children’s cases who submit their application to USCIS rather than directly to the Immigration Court.

Judge-by-Judge Differences in Asylum Decisions

The outcome for asylum seekers continued to depend on the identity of the immigration judge assigned to hear the case. The San Francisco Immigration Court led the country in having the widest disparity among judges serving on the same court. Depending upon the judge, denial rates ranged from 97 percent down to 10 percent.

Recent Trends Under President Trump

While Figure 1 shows a fairly steady rise in asylum denial rates since FY 2015, the month-by month picture gives a more nuanced impression. Against a backdrop of natural month-to-month variability, Figure 3 shows that there were periods of relative increase followed by stretches where rates showed little average gain. The switch to a purple line from blue shown in Figure 3 marks where President Trump assumed office following President Obama.

The graph indicates that asylum denial rates rose during the initial months of the Trump Administration. However, after that denial rates stabilized. Only very recently beginning in June of this year did denials climb again. This latest rise corresponded with decisions by former Attorney General Sessions that strictly limited the grounds on which immigration judges could grant asylum. Central American women and children fleeing from gang and domestic violence no longer were deemed asylum candidates. Not surprisingly, following this new hard line on immigration enforcement, the rate of asylum denials has recently climbed.

Figure 3. Percent of Immigration Court Asylum Decisions Denied
September 2014 – September 2018
(Click for larger image)
TRAC is a nonpartisan, nonprofit data research center affiliated with the Newhouse School of Public Communications and the Whitman School of Management, both at Syracuse University. For more information, to subscribe, or to donate, contact or call 315-443-3563.