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

by Jason Dzubow on September 10, 2013

in Immigration Court

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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.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

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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