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Immigration judges overseeing the vast majority of the nation’s asylum cases have issued decisions with alarmingly wide disparities, according to a report released last week by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), a research organization at Syracuse University. Neither the court’s location nor the nationality of the asylum seekers had an impact on why judges granted or denied requests with no consistency, the report concluded. The report comes as the U.S. Department of Justice has launched reforms to improve the quality of the nation’s immigration judges, who have been accused of abusive behavior toward, and bias against, asylum seekers. “This really suggests that the judge you get is more important than the underlying facts in each of these cases,” said David Burnham, co-director of TRAC. The disparity, he added, “raises questions about the fairness of the system.” A ‘serious problem’ The TRAC report looked at 224 immigration judges who decided at least 100 asylum cases from fiscal year 2001 to fiscal year 2006, which ended on Oct. 1, 2006. Given that period, the report does not address whether recent reforms have had an impact on the outcome of asylum cases, Burnham said. Last August, former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales ordered that a new code of conduct, performance evaluations and proficiency testing be implemented to improve the quality of immigration judges, who were criticized by Gonzalez for displaying abusive behavior toward asylum seekers. The TRAC report found that the range of denials made by immigration judges who handled at least 100 asylum cases was about 88%. The highest rate came from U.S. Immigration Judge Mahlon F. Hanson in Miami, who denied 97.6% of his asylum cases. The lowest was U.S. Immigration Judge Terry A. Bain in New York, who denied only 9.5% of her cases. But U.S. Immigration Judge Denise Slavin, vice president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, said the TRAC report fails to consider that at least six of the judges who sat in different locations during that period had denial rates that varied by 10%. “That shows it’s not related to the judge,” said Slavin, who handles asylum cases at the Krome Detention Center in Miami. She said she is more likely to deny requests in cases at Krome than in Miami’s regular court, where she worked until early 2006, because the asylum seekers are detained. Further, the facts of a case affect her decisions more than the nationality of an asylum seeker, Slavin said. “They’re such case-by-case, fact-bound decisions, it’s hard to say there are real true disparities,” she said.

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