If you want to maximize your chances for winning asylum, where is the best place in the U.S. to apply?
It’s unfortunate that we even need to ask this question. In a perfect world, the approval rates for each Asylum Office would be about the same. But in the real world, approval rates vary–by quite a lot, it turns out.
Our team of mathematicians here at the Asylumist have been working hard to analyze the most recent data from the Asylum Office, and we’ve summarized our findings in the attached chart. You can see that the approval rate for the San Francisco office (76.5%) is significantly higher than for the other Asylum Offices. The next best offices are Arlington (51.8%) and Los Angeles (50.7%), followed by Chicago (38.3%), Miami (37.7%), and Newark (35.8%). The worst offices are Houston (27.6%) and New York (22.6%).
First, a word about methodology: We used monthly statistical information from the Asylum Division Quarterly Stakeholder Meeting to calculate the percentages. USCIS posts this information four times per year, and you can see the latest posting here. We looked at the numbers from the most recently available six month period: April to September 2015. To determine the approval rate, we removed from the mix (technically, from the denominator) asylum denials based on no-shows–in other words, where the applicant herself never attended the interview.
Just for fun, we added another column listing the length of delay before the interview at each office (as of February 2016 – one day, I will do an article about why the posted wait times are not good predictors of how long a new asylum applicant will wait for an interview). You can see that the Asylum Offices with the lowest grant rates (New York and Houston) also currently have the shortest waits for an interview (20 months and 21 months respectively). Perhaps there is a connection between grant rates and waiting periods, but I doubt it–the office with the highest grant rate (San Francisco) has the third shortest waiting time (25 months).
Based on the above analysis, the savvy asylum seeker might conclude that the best way to maximize his chance for a grant is to live within the jurisdiction of the San Francisco Asylum Office, or as a second choice, the Arlington, Virginia or Los Angeles Asylum Offices (to see which Asylum Office has jurisdiction over your case, check the Asylum Office Locator). But I think such a conclusion assumes too much. I also think there are other factors worth considering besides grant rates and wait times. Let me explain.
First, it’s difficult to know what’s behind the above numbers and how applicable they are to an individual case. Who is seeking asylum at each office? From which countries and for what reasons? Are applicants more likely to be represented by a lawyer (which increases the likelihood of a grant) at certain offices? Some types of cases are more difficult to win than others, and this might be reflected in the statistics. For example, supposedly the Houston office has a higher percentage of applicants fleeing persecution from criminal gangs in Central America. In general, such cases are difficult to win since applicants don’t easily fit into a protected category under the asylum law. If we could eliminate Central American cases from the mix, perhaps the Houston office would have a higher grant rate. So does this mean that if you have a different type of asylum case (say, an Iraqi fleeing religious persecution), Houston might not be a bad place to apply? Maybe. At least it probably is not as bad as the overall approval rate suggests.
Second, while USCIS provides limited information about why cases are denied, they do give us some information–most importantly, they provide the number of cases denied due to missed filing deadlines (asylum applicants are required to submit their applications within one year of arrival in the U.S. or meet an exception to this rule; otherwise, the Asylum Office will automatically deny the case and refer it to an Immigration Judge). For some reason, the New York office has a high percentage of “Filing Deadline Referrals.” Roughly 35% of all referrals in NY are due to the filing deadline. In most other offices, less than 20% of cases are referred on this basis. If you remove such cases from the calculus, the overall grant rate in NY goes from 22% to over 30%. So does this mean that more people are filing late in New York, or does it mean that New York is less likely to find an exception to the one-year filing requirement? While I suspect it’s the latter, we really don’t know. But if you are filing your application in a timely manner, the New York office may not be as bad as the chart above indicates.
The bottom line is, we don’t know a whole lot about what’s behind the Asylum Division’s statistics, and without a better understanding of the situation, it is difficult to make predictions in an individual case.
There’s another unknown factor at play here as well: These cases are taking a long time, and given the relatively short tenure of each asylum officer (two or three years, I’ve heard), the approval rate at a given office may change by the time the interview date arrives. So a good office today may be less good tomorrow (or vice versa).
Finally–and for me, this is the best argument against forum shopping–given the years-long waiting period before the interview, asylum seekers have got to live their lives. I often advise new clients that they should live as though they are going to win their cases. Why? Because it’s impossible not to–how can you put your entire life on hold for two, three or more years while you wait for an asylum decision? In some things (reunification with family, certain job opportunities), you may have no choice, but to the extent possible, you need to live your life while you are waiting for a decision. This means you need to live where you have a job or go to school, or where you have the support of family members and friends. If you choose where to live based on the local Asylum Office approval rate, you may have a hard time surviving the wait.
On the other hand, if all else is equal (or maybe if you just have a hankerin’ for some Rice-A-Roni), San Francisco is probably not a bad place to apply.