The rate of asylum petitions denied in New York City’s busy immigration court has shot up about 17 times times faster than in the rest of the country during the Trump administration’s crackdown—and still Ana was there, a round-faced Honduran woman with a black scarf wrapped turban-like over her hair, a look of fright crossing her dark eyes as the judge asked if she faced danger in her home country.
Her eyes darted over to her helper, a Manhattan lighting designer with New Sanctuary Coalition volunteers to offer moral support—she couldn’t find a lawyer to take her case for free. Then Ana turned back to the judge, or rather, to the video screen that beamed him in from Virginia, and whispered to the court interpreter in Spanish: “My spouse and my son were killed.” Tears welled in her eyes as she said a notorious transnational gang had carried out the slaying.
“Yes we were receiving threats from them,” she added. And that was why, months before her husband and son were slain, she and her 5-year-old daughter had come “through the river,” entering the United States near Piedras Negras, Mexico.
After ruling that she was deportable, the judge gave Ana—The Daily Beast is withholding her real name because of the danger she faces in Honduras—three months to submit a claim for asylum, a possible defense against her removal. “You should start working on that,” the judge told her. As she left the courtroom, Ana hugged the volunteer who’d accompanied her, Joan Racho-Jansen.
New York’s immigration court has long been the asylum capital; it has made two out of every five of the nation’s grants since 2001, while handling a quarter of the caseload. With approval of 55 percent of the petitions in the fiscal year ended Sept. 30, it still grants a greater percentage of asylum requests than any other courts except San Francisco and Guam.
But New York’s golden door is slamming shut for far more asylum seekers than in the past, especially for women like Ana.
The asylum denial rate in the New York City immigration court rose from 15 percent in fiscal year 2016, the last full year of the Obama administration, to 44 percent in fiscal year 2019, which ended Sept. 30. The rest of the country, excluding New York, has been relatively stable, with denials going from 69 percent to 74 percent. That is, the rate of denials in the rest of the country increased by one-ninth, but in New York they almost trebled.
There are other courts where the rate of denials has shot up sharply over the same period: Newark, New Jersey (168 percent); Boston (147 percent); Philadelphia (118 percent). But because of the volume of its caseload, what’s happening in New York is driving the national trend against asylum. For now, in sheer numbers, New York judges still granted more asylum requests over the last year than those in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Arlington, Virginia, the next three largest courts, combined.
An analysis of federal data compiled by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University and interviews with former immigration judges, lawyers, immigrant advocates and experts finds multiple reasons for the sharp shift in the nation’s largest immigration court as compared to the rest of the country:
—Many more migrants are coming to the New York court from Mexico and the “Northern Triangle” of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, and the judges have been far more likely to deny them asylum than in the past: from two out of five cases in the 2016 fiscal year to four out of five cases in the 2019 fiscal year.
—Many veteran New York judges retired, and most of the replacements have a prosecutorial, military, or immigration enforcement background. In the past, appointments were more mixed between former prosecutors and immigrant defenders. Immigration judges are appointed by the U.S. attorney general and work for the Justice Department, not the federal court system.
—All the judges are under heavier pressure from their Justice Department superiors to process cases more quickly, which gives asylum applicants little time to gather witnesses and supporting documents such as police reports. New judges, who are on two years of probation, are under particular pressure because numerical “benchmarks” for completing cases are a critical factor in employee evaluations.
“You have a huge number of new hires in New York,” said Jeffrey Chase, a former New York immigration judge. “The new hires are mostly being chosen because they were former prosecutors. They’re normally of the background that this administration thinks will be statistically more likely to deny cases.”
Judge Jeffrey L. Menkin, who presided in Ana’s case via video hookup, began hearing cases in March. He is based in Falls Church, Virginia, the home of the Executive Office of Immigration Review, the Justice Department agency that runs the immigration courts. He’d been a Justice Department lawyer since 1991, including the previous 12 years as senior counsel for national security for the Office of Immigration Litigation.
Menkin can see only a portion of his New York courtroom on his video feed and as a result, he didn’t realize a Daily Beast reporter was present to watch him conduct an asylum hearing for a Guatemalan woman—we’ll call her Gloria—and her three young children, who were not present.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement took Gloria into custody at the Mexican border in March. Released on bond, she made her way to New York and had an initial immigration court hearing on June 26, one of many cases on a crowded master calendar. She was scheduled for an individual hearing four months later.
At the hearing scheduled three months later on the merits of her case, she decided to present an asylum defense to deportation. Her lawyer asked for a continuance—that is, a new hearing date—while his client waited to receive documentation she’d already requested from Guatemala. The papers were on the way, Gloria said.
Judges in such cases—those that the Department of Homeland Security designates as “family unit”—have been directed to complete them within a year, which is about 15 months faster than the average case resolved for the year ending Sept. 30. Down the hall, other types of cases were being scheduled for 2023. Menkin called the lawyer’s unexpected request for a continuance “nonsense” and “malarkey” and asked: “Are you and your client taking this case seriously?”
The judge then asked if Gloria was requesting a case-closing “voluntary departure,” a return to her homeland that would leave open the option she could apply again to enter the United States.
But Gloria had no intention of going back to Guatemala voluntarily. So Menkin looked to the government’s lawyer: “DHS, do you want to jump into this cesspool?” The government lawyer objected to granting what would have been the first continuance in Gloria’s case.
And so Menkin refused to re-schedule, telling Gloria and her lawyer that they had to go ahead right then if they wanted to present an asylum defense. Gloria began testifying about threats and beatings that stretched back a decade, beginning after a failed romance with a man who was influential in local politics. Details are being withheld to protect her identity.
She finally fled, she said, when extortionists threatened to hurt her children if she didn’t make monthly payoffs that were beyond her means. When she observed that she and her children were being followed, she decided to leave. After she said she had gone to police three times, Menkin took over the questioning.
“Are you familiar with the contents of your own asylum application?” he asked, pointedly.
“No,” Gloria responded.
Menkin said her asylum application stated she had gone to police once, rather than three times, as she’d just testified. Gloria explained that she had called in the information for the application to an assistant in her lawyer’s office, and didn’t know why it was taken down wrong.
When her lawyer tried to explain, Menkin stopped him, raising his voice: “I did not ask you anything.”
Later, Menkin came back to the discrepancy he’d picked up on. “I don’t know why,” Gloria responded.
“All right, STOP,” Menkin told the woman, who cried through much of the two-hour hearing. Again, he sought to terminate the case, asking the DHS lawyer, “Do I have grounds to dismiss this now?”
“I’m trying to be fair,” she replied.
“We’re all trying to be fair,” Menkin said.
And to be fair, it should be noted that since October 2018, the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR) has been evaluating judges’ performance based on the numbers for case completions, timeliness of decisions and the percent of rulings upheld on appeal. “In essence, immigration judges are in the untenable position of being both sworn to uphold judicial standards of impartiality and fairness while being subject to what appears to be politically-motivated performance standards,” according to an American Bar Association report that assailed what it said were unprecedented “production quotas” for judges.
The pressure is especially strong on judges who, like Menkin, are new hires. They are probationary employees for two years.
Denise Slavin, a former president of the National Association of Immigration Judges who retired from the bench in April after 24 years of service, said the judges’ union had tried to talk EOIR Director James McHenry out of his quotas. “It’s basically like the same problem with putting quotas on police officers for tickets,” she said. “It suggests bias and skews the system to a certain extent.” Told of the details of Gloria’s hearing, she added, “That’s a prime example of the pressure these quotas have on cases… the pressure to get it done right away.”
Kathryn Mattingly, spokeswoman for the Executive Office of Immigration Review, said by email that she couldn’t comment on individual cases, but that all cases are handled on their individual merits. “Each asylum case is unique, with its own set of facts, evidentiary factors, and circumstances,” she wrote. “Asylum cases typically include complex legal and factual issues.” She also said that Menkin could not comment: “Immigration judges do not give interviews.”
It’s true that each asylum case has its own complex factors. But a 2016 study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office took many of them into account—the asylum seeker’s nationality, language, legal representation, detention status, number of dependents—and determined that there are big differences in how the same “representative applicant” will be treated from one court and one judge to another.
“We saw that grant rates varies very significantly across courts and also across judges,” said Rebecca Gambler, director of the GAO’s Homeland Security and Justice team.
Some experts say that changes in the way the Justice Department has told immigration judges to interpret the law may be having an outsize effect in New York.
Starting with Jeff Sessions, the Trump administration’s attorneys general have used their authority over immigration courts to narrow the judges’ discretion to grant asylum or, in their view, to clarify existing law.
Asylum can be granted to those facing persecution because of “race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.” In June 2018, Sessions overturned a precedent that many judges in New York had been using to find that victims of domestic assaults or gang violence could be members of a “particular social group,” especially when police were complicit or helpless. Justice’s ruling in the Matter of A-B-, a Salvadoran woman, seems to have had a particular impact in New York.
“Where there’s a question about a ‘particular social group,’ judges in other parts of the country may have taken a narrower view” already, said Lindsay Nash, a professor at Cardozo Law School in New York and co-director of the Kathryn O. Greenberg Immigration Justice Clinic.
Mauricio Noroña, a clinical teaching fellow at the same clinic, said new judges would be especially careful to follow the lead in the attorney general’s ruling.
Andrew Arthur, a fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington and a former immigration judge in York, Pennsylvania, said Sessions’ decision in the Matter of A-B- would particularly affect Central American applicants, whose numbers have increased sharply in New York’s court. Data show that just 8.5 percent of the New York asylum cases were from Central America or Mexico in 2016; in the past year, 32.6 percent were.
Arthur said a larger portion of the New York court’s asylum rulings in the past were for Chinese immigrants, whose arguments for refuge—persecution because of political dissent, religious belief, or the one-child policy—are fairly straightforward under U.S. asylum law. Although the number of Chinese applicants is still increasing, they have fallen as a portion of the New York caseload from 60 percent in 2016 to 28 percent in the past year.
Sessions’ determination against A-B- is being challenged, and lawyers have been exploring other paths to asylum in the meantime. “It’s extremely complicated to prepare cases in this climate of changing law,” said Swapna Reddy, co-executive director of the Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project. But, she said, “That’s not to say advocates and judges can’t get back to that [higher] grant rate.”
Gloria continued to cry; the DHS lawyer asked that she be given a tissue. The government lawyer’s cross-examination was comparatively gentle, but she questioned why Gloria didn’t move elsewhere within Guatemala and seek police protection.
“He would find out before I even arrived at the police station,” she said of the man she feared. And, she added, “They’re always going to investigate and as for always being on the run, that’s no life for my kids.”
In closing arguments, Gloria’s lawyer said his client had testified credibly and that she legitimately feared her tormentor’s influence. The DHS lawyer did not question Gloria’s credibility, but she said Gloria’s problem was personal, not political—that she could have moved to parts of Guatemala that were beyond the reach of the man’s political influence.
Judge Menkin then declared a 20-minute recess so that he could compose his decision. In the interim, the lawyers discovered that a man sitting in one corner of the small courtroom was a reporter and, when the judge returned to the bench to rule, so informed him.
Immigration court hearings are generally open to the public. There are special rules for asylum cases, however. The court’s practice manual says they “are open to the public unless the respondent expressly requests that they be closed.”
“Oh, Jesus Christ!” Menkin shouted at the lawyers when he learned a reporter had been present for the hearing. “Don’t you people look around the room? What’s the matter with you?”
After the judge expressed his alarm, the reporter was ejected with Gloria’s tearful assent, and so the basis for Judge Menkin’s ruling on Gloria’s asylum petition is not known. The outcome is, though: denied, 30 days to appeal.