Boston immigration court approved 58% of asylum requests

Data indicate approvals much higher than in most other jurisdictions

BOSTON’S IMMIGRATION COURT is one of only seven nationwide that approved more than 50 percent of asylum requests over a six-year period. 

The Boston court approved 58 percent of asylum requests, and courts in New York City, Newark, Phoenix, Chicago, Honolulu, and San Francisco approved even higher percentages. New York City’s court approved 74 percent of asylum requests, according to new data released by Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, covering a six-year period from fiscal 2014 through fiscal 2019. 

Immigration courts in other parts of the country have very different records. Judges at 12 courts denied more than 90 percent of asylum requests over the six-year period. The Atlanta court denied 97 percent of the applications it received and the Las Vegas court denied 93 percent. A tiny court in Louisiana denied the most applications – 99 percent. 

Syracuse reviewed 178,858 asylum decisions by individual judges at 59 courts from fiscal 2014 through fiscal year 2019In fiscal 2019, judges decided over 67,000 asylum cases nationally, nearly 2½ times the number from five years ago.   

Percentage of immigration court asylum decisions denied. (Graphic from Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse)

Asylum cases go to immigration court if a US Citizenship and Immigration Services agent cannot decide whether or not to grant someone asylum. Under law, an asylum seeker must prove a fear of persecution in their home country to be granted sanctuary in the US. 

According to the analysis, asylum applicants nationwide waited an average of 1,030 days, or nearly three years, for their cases to be decided. A quarter of all asylum applicants whose cases were heard in fiscal 2019 waited 1,421 days – nearly four years.   

Mahsa Khanbabai, the president of the New England chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, praised judges in Boston for their professionalism and diversity, which she said leads to fair decision-making. She has also noted that more applicants in Boston tend to have attorneys, which increases the odds of winning a case. The Syracuse data indicate 89 percent of all asylum seekers going through court without an attorney are denied.  

Khanbabai expressed some concern about recently appointed judges to the Boston court, noting all of them are former federal prosecutors. She said she hoped the new judges would not let their former positions affect their rulings. “Time, and data, will tell us if that is the case,” she said.  

Beverly Garcia, an immigration attorney based in Boston, said half of her caseload consists of people seeking asylum. “I do think that our denial rates are lower than average compared to, say, close to 100 percent in Atlanta or Las Vegas, which makes me hopeful that our judges are at least giving people a fair shake,” she said.  

She said she is concerned that denials might start to rise in the wake of a recent decision by Attorney General William Barr, who ruled in July that immigrants fearing persecution because of threats against their family members are no longer eligible for asylum. A mother concerned about her teenager being harassed or threatened into joining a gang could not apply successfully for asylum, according to the new rule.   

Boston’s immigration judges mentioned in the TRAC analysis were Maureen O’Sullivan, Leonard Shapiro, Paul Gagnon, Robin Feder, Brenda O’Malley, Matthew D’Angelo, Mario  Sturla, Gwendylan, and Todd Masters. 

Combined, the nine judges in Boston decided 3,196 cases over the time period. The biggest number of asylum seekers for each judge were from El Salvador and Guatemala, countries impacted in the past decade by drug wars and cartels.   

The Boston judge who heard the most cases was O’Sullivan, who heard 690, and ruled in favor of asylum seekers 74 percent of the time. Masters issued 145 decisions, granting asylum only 26 percent of the time. Tregerman was only one percentage point behind Masters. Her denial rate of almost 73 percent was higher than the national average of 63 percent over those five years. The average among her colleagues was 44 percent.   

Meet the Author

Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a long-time Latina reporter in Massachusetts. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a breaking news reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, incarceration, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a long-time Latina reporter in Massachusetts. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a breaking news reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, incarceration, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

Shapiro retired in 2015 and D’Angelo retired in 2018. Since then, five new judges, all from within the Department of Homeland Security, were appointed. They are John Furlong Jr., Lincoln  Jalelian, Jennifer Mulcahy, and Marna Rusher, most in the past year. Jose Sanchez was also appointed as assistant chief immigration judge last February. They were not part of the data set.