Book Review: Bench Pressed by Immigration Judge Susan L. Yarbrough

by Jason Dzubow on September 10, 2013

It’s rare to hear from judges about how their jobs affect them. In an engaging new memoir, Bench Pressed, former Immigration Judge Susan L. Yarbrough discusses the human side of adjudicating asylum cases.

Is it hubris or chutzpah (or both) to judge a Judge on the Day of Judgment?

Is it hubris or chutzpah (or both) to judge a Judge on the Day of Judgment?

The book covers five cases decided by Judge Yarbrough–one for each of the five protected grounds (race, religion, nationality, political opinion, and particular social group). Reflecting the time period (1990’s) and the location of her court (Texas), most of the cases involve Latin American applicants. The one exception is a Palestinian man who was used as a human shield by the Israeli army. The IJ gives some background on the country situation and then describes each person’s case. Finally, she talks about how each case affected her.

This book was a quick read, and–as a person who practices asylum law on a daily basis–I really enjoyed it. That said, it seems to me that the book is targeted more for people who are not so familiar with the asylum system. For someone like me, the stories of the applicants are probably the least interesting part of the book. I am more interested in the Judge’s observations of “the system” and of her own reactions to the cases. The stories of the applicants are similar to what I hear from my clients all the time. But for people who do not live this stuff, I imagine that the stories may be the most interesting part of the book (and the stories are interesting).

One surprise in the book was how strongly Judge Yarbrough was affected by these cases. She often described crying after a case, and it was obvious that the job was emotionally trying for her. In some ways, I think she is lucky to “feel” the cases so strongly, though of course it takes a toll. I clerked for an immigration court during the same time that Judge Yarbrough was active, and so I observed IJs in Atlanta, Philadelphia, and (mostly) Arlington, Virginia. I never got the sense that they were as emotionally affected as Judge Yarbrough, and so I think her reactions may be somewhat atypical. Nonetheless, her observations shed important light on the emotional damage these cases can do to the adjudicators (and others in the system).

If there is a weakness to the book, it is that the Judge does not discuss any cases that she denied. I would have been curious to see how a judge reconciles her duty to the law with what she views as the morally correct outcome where those two concepts are in conflict. I recall a federal appeal I worked on where the applicant sought asylum based on fear of persecution by gang members in El Salvador. During the trial, the IJ agreed that he faced persecution and she told him, “I think you are in a terrible situation and I could not have more sympathy for you.” Nevertheless, she denied his case because a protected ground was not “one central reason” for his persecution (I litigated the case in the Fourth Circuit where we lost). I was (and am) curious about how an IJ can square her feelings of sympathy towards an applicant–and her belief that she may be sending the applicant back to his death–with what she views as her duty to enforce the law.

Overall, I thought Judge Yarbrough’s book was a very worthwhile read. If you practice asylum law, you will enjoy reading about the system from the IJ’s point of view. Also, if you are like me, you will find some schadenfreudian (if that is a word) pleasure from reading the Judge’s descriptions of certain government and private attorneys (though she is too polite to name names). If you are not familiar with the asylum system, the book will provide an interesting and entertaining introduction to the people who come to our country for refuge and those who decide their cases.

You can see more reviews of Bench Pressed and buy the book here.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

HK December 29, 2016 at 5:57 am

Last December, my boyfriend and I were caught having sex by local Florence, Oregon police. At the time, I was a fourteen, almost fifteen year old runaway, but I had been lying about my age and convinced my twenty four year old boyfriend and many others I was eighteen. He first found out my real age as he was arrested before being put in Lane County Jail in Eugene, Oregon. Regardless of me and my family’s attempts to help him prove his innocence in court, we were ignored by his lawyer and ended up taking a plea deal and was charged with Rape III and sentenced three years probation in Eugene, Oregon, which the terms of prevented him from leaving Lane County, rendering him homeless, jobless, and a registered sex offender in an unknown city. While he was in jail before he took the plea. I found out I was pregnant and contacted him with the news as soon as he was released. He very much wanted to be a part of his child’s life and we remained in close contact and he even had a few visits to see his son and I. Throughout the year, he became a close, accepted member of my family, who all understood the situation was just a horrible mistake that was completely out of his hands. Unfortunately, this last November his probation officer found out about our contact and told my boyfriend that if he talked to me again he would be reported to the courts and sent to prison, that I could be reported Child Protective Services and they would try to take our son from my custody for endangerment. Obviously shocked and upset, my mother and I contacted his probation officer and tried to figure out a way as could get my boyfriend’s probation transferred up here to Washington, where he is from and has job opportunities, hea place to live, tons of loving family and where there would be no legal issues. But his probation officer was completely unhelpful and only told us that the father of my child had to complete a program his probation before he would would even get his help for legally supervised visitation with his son. My family was contacted by Child Protective Services that same week and had to do a safety check of some sort, but even the social worker explained that in Washington State (where I live) I was the age of consent now, and there was nothing they could, or even wanted to do legally. She was completely empathetic of the situation, saw that my son was obviously a healthy, happy five month old in no danger and said she would even try to find my boyfriend some legal resources for his parental rights but we have heard nothing back so far. I’ve tried contacted a few other lawyers but I’m a young teen mother and I’m afraid many professionals don’t take this situation very seriously coming from me. I’m really just trying to find a way my family can be together. After all, this horrible affair came all came from a selfish, naive mistake I made at fourteen. Would it be possible for us to go to an embassy and try to seek short-term asylum? Or would our best bet be to flee the country and then contact officials there? If you have an legal advice as to where we could escape this whole mess, please respond. Thank you. -HK


Jason Dzubow January 2, 2017 at 8:47 am

I do not think this is a case where asylum would be the best answer, but I suppose you could try to both move to a third country, at least for a while. It seems to me that it is better to look for easier solutions – like finding a lawyer who knows about this type of law and getting a better idea of your legal options. For example, what if you got married? Would that solve the problem? I have no idea, but you need some legal advice or a lawyer who can fight against the rule blocking your BF from seeing your family (maybe you could take the case to a judge who would see things differently than the probation officer). Good luck, Jason


Susan Yarbrough September 12, 2013 at 8:27 pm

As the author of Bench-Pressed, I greatly appreciate Mr. Dzubow’s balanced review of the book’s strengths and weaknesses. I want to clarify that any tears I had about cases that affected me greatly were reserved for the privacy of my office behind locked doors, and that I never cried in court, although I certainly felt like doing so on many occasions. As for the cases I denied, there were many, and I was constantly amazed at how, contrary to popular opinion, asylum law in the United States was and is very pinched and crabbed, how reluctant the BIA and the federal circuits were to re-think the possible nexus between a factual claim and one of the five grounds, and how many cases could simply not be shoe-horned into existing case law, no matter how far I stretched. I never forgot that I took an oath to uphold the law, and I take oaths very seriously. But I had no idea when I was sworn in in 1987 that the development of asylum law would move at such a glacial pace, and it disturbed me greatly to deny cases where I knew the respondent would be harmed or killed if returned to his or her country. Coupled with the narrowing of availability of relief under Sections 212(c) and 212(h), I finally concluded that I was not, as Buddhists would put it, engaged in right livelihood, and it was with equal parts of sadness, anger, and relief that I retired at the age of 58. I think we all live (and work) with certain contradictions, and it is clear (as Mr. Dzubow points out) that I never squared my sympathy toward asylum applicants and my fears for their safety with my duty to uphold the law. I am glad, however, that I was willing to let their lives and their narratives open my mind and transform my own life for the better, and I have only the highest regard for attorneys who represent these respondents with creativity and zeal.


Jason Dzubow September 12, 2013 at 8:38 pm

Thank you, J. Yarbrough. The book is a great read, and I hope many people have a chance to enjoy it.


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