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Asylum seekers’ rate of success in the nation’s immigration courts is the highest it has been in 25 years and one significant factor is increased legal representation, new research has found. In fiscal year 1986, immigration judges denied almost nine out of 10 asylum requests. In the first nine months of fiscal 2010, only half of the requests were rejected — a record low, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a nonpartisan research organization at Syracuse University. “One factor contributing to the improved success of the asylum seekers is that a higher proportion of the total are represented by counsel,” said the report, “Asylum Decisions in the Immigration Courts,” part of an ongoing monitoring effort by TRAC. During fiscal 2010, for example, only 11 percent of those without legal representation were granted asylum; with legal representation the odds rose to 54 percent. The report, released Sept. 2, said the most recent data show that more than nine out of every 10 asylum seekers are now represented, up from just over half in fiscal 1986. At the same time, the number of asylum decisions issued by immigration judges has been declining steadily since a peak of about 35,000 in 2003 to roughly 20,000 in the first nine months of fiscal 2010. The report noted that a longtime problem — judge-to-judge disparities in asylum decisions — continues to plague the immigration courts. “As in the past, whether an individual request for asylum is approved or denied is still heavily dependent upon the judge who was assigned to decide it,” said the report. While the disparities have moderated somewhat, the report said, they remain “substantial.” The report gave as an example the New York immigration court, which in the fiscal year 2008 – 2010 period handled the largest volume of asylum cases. The record showed that one judge denied asylum only 6 percent of the time, while another denied asylum 70 percent of the time. The judge-to-judge range in the San Francisco court was from 32 percent to 92 percent, and that court’s disparity showed little improvement. Among the larger immigration courts, Miami had the least disparity. The denial rates of judges there ranged from 60 percent to 88 percent. The average disparity in denial rates among judges sitting on the same court was 39 percentage points, according to the report. From 2006 to 2008, the Executive Office of Immigration Review and the General Accountability Office took steps to reduce the judge-to-judge disparities in asylum cases. TRAC itself created an online tool that allows immigration judges, as well as the public, to compare their denial rates with other judges. The increased attention made a difference, acknowledged the report, noting that on average, disparity levels have dropped by about 10 percentage points. It is too soon to tell whether the decline will continue, according to the report. “Thus, although disparities have been reduced, the unfortunate bottom line remains,” said the report. “A very important element in deciding whether an asylum seeker is granted or denied asylum has little to do with the legitimacy of his or her claims, but a great deal to do with the particular judge to whom the asylum seeker was assigned.”

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