Hartford judges decide, deny near-record number of asylum cases

Hartford — The state’s two immigration judges decided 308 asylum cases in fiscal year 2018 — the most since 2003 — and denied asylum at a rate not seen since 2008.

Per data compiled by TRAC — a nonpartisan, nonprofit research center out of Syracuse University — judges Michael Strauss and Philip Verrillo granted asylum just 32 percent of the time in the most recent federal fiscal year, which ran from Oct. 1, 2017, through Sept. 30, 2018.

In the previous fiscal year, the data show, they had granted asylum in 49 percent of 224 cases.

The happenings in Hartford resemble a national trend: Judges decided a record-breaking 42,224 cases in fiscal year 2018, the TRAC data show, and issued denials 65 percent of the time.

Mary Foden, an immigration lawyer with Hartford-based firm De Castro Foden, said she isn’t surprised judges are deciding more cases.

“What you’re seeing today is a reflection of what started years ago, which is an influx of immigration from the triangle: Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador,” Foden said. “Those most recently arriving are only eligible for asylum. That’s why there’s a huge uptick."

To apply for asylum, a person must be in the United States and meet the definition of a refugee: They can't return home because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution "on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion." With few exceptions, they must apply within a year of arriving in the States. Those who have been convicted of serious crimes are not eligible.

Only one in five asylum cases is decided in less than a year, TRAC said in a report about its data. Most asylum seekers receive court dates that are years out, meaning many cases happening today were scheduled in 2015 or 2016.

Foden, however, was surprised to learn of the increase in denials. She said she hasn’t experienced the phenomenon among her own clients.

The 35-year-old firm for which Foden works has one of the largest immigration caseloads in the state. Six of her clients were granted asylum this week, she said.

“I think we’ve had more approvals than last year,” she said.

However, Foden said she has had to work harder on each case since former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, in a June decision, said proof of domestic or gang violence alone wouldn’t qualify a person for asylum.

Session’s decision reversed a 2014 Board of Immigration Appeals ruling, which said domestic and gang violence victims could seek asylum because they’re part of a social group unprotected by their government.

“Sometimes people read about this and think they’re not eligible, then don’t try,” Foden said. “I caution against that.”

Foden and other Connecticut immigration lawyers have analyzed clients’ cases and discovered that, in many cases, the domestic or gang violence was motivated by something else.

“Sometimes they’re persecuted because of their political opinions or religious beliefs,” she said. “We have to challenge ourselves to read the law carefully and dig deeply into why the clients — the asylum seekers or refugees — were harmed. We shouldn’t just focus on the victim and who was causing the harm, but the question of why.”

Sessions’ act to deny political asylum to victims of domestic or gang violence is the subject of at least three lawsuits, including one levied in September by 18 states and the District of Columbia.

In short, the suits allege Sessions ignored the warlike conditions in the triangle countries and contradicted federal laws protecting victims of domestic violence.

Asked how and why the same two judges are getting through so many more cases, John Martin, regional public information officer for the U.S. Department of Justice, said the agency wouldn’t comment on “third-party analysis” of immigration court data.

“Immigration judges consider all evidence and arguments presented by both parties and decide each case in a manner that is timely, impartial and consistent with applicable law and precedent,” Martin wrote in an email. 

‘I’m scared all of us would be killed’

A woman who came to the United States from El Salvador in November 2015 — she asked to remain anonymous out of fear for her own safety — said Sessions’ summer decision worried her.

The 30-something woman, in contact with immigration officials since she and her two daughters crossed the border, is in the process of seeking asylum. Gangs, she said, shot her husband point blank in the back of the head and promised a similar end for her.

“Sometimes I’m scared of what the judge is going to say,” she said through a translator.

The woman lives in southeastern Connecticut with her daughters and other family members.

With her next court date scheduled for September 2021, the woman said she has faith in her lawyer and believes the political atmosphere may be more favorable in three years.

“It’s not easy to get used to this country and leave your country behind,” said the woman, who’s taking classes to improve her English. “But I can’t go back (home). I’m scared all of us would be killed.”

Per the TRAC data, legal representation makes a difference. Of the 691 Connecticut residents who didn’t have lawyers from the 2001 through 2018 fiscal years, 644, or 93 percent, were denied asylum.

Foden implored fellow lawyers to take worthy pro-bono cases and keep fees low whenever possible.

“I don’t see how someone without adequate education could represent themselves,” she said. “The legal questions presented are difficult for even seasoned practitioners."

Notably, decisions issued by the two Hartford judges vary greatly. From fiscal years 2013 through 2018, the TRAC data show, Strauss denied asylum in 74 percent of his 793 cases. Verrillo, however, denied asylum in 43 percent of 408 cases.

“The judges in Hartford are diligent in making sure everyone has a full opportunity to talk about why they were harmed and are afraid to go back,” Foden said.

Still, she said people should remember decisions issued in Hartford can be appealed.

“They’re not final decisions,” she said. “I try to remind people to have hope and make sure they bring their case forward.”

l.boyle@theday.com

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