Refugee Roulette: Disparities in Asylum Adjudication

119 Pages Posted: 31 May 2007 Last revised: 3 Jan 2008

See all articles by Jaya Ramji-Nogales

Jaya Ramji-Nogales

Temple University - James E. Beasley School of Law

Andrew I. Schoenholtz

Georgetown University Law Center

Philip G. Schrag

Georgetown University Law Center


This study analyzes databases of merits decisions from all four levels of the asylum adjudication process: 133,000 decisions by 884 asylum officers over a seven year period; 140,000 decisions of 225 immigration judges over a four-and-a-half year period; 126,000 decisions of the Board of Immigration Appeals over six years; and 4215 decisions of the U.S. Courts of Appeal during 2004 and 2005. The analysis reveals significant disparities in grant rates, even when different adjudicators in the same office each considered large numbers of applications from nationals of the same country. In many cases, the most important moment in an asylum case is the instant in which a clerk randomly assigns an application to a particular asylum officer or immigration judge.

Using cross-tabulations based on public biographies, the paper also explores correlations between sociological characteristics of individual immigration judges and their grant rates. The cross tabulations show that the chance of winning asylum was strongly affected by whether or not the applicant had legal representation, by the gender of the immigration judge, and by the immigration judge's work experience prior to appointment.

In their conclusion, the authors do not recommend enforced quota systems for asylum adjudicators, but they do make recommendations for more comprehensive training, more effective and independent appellate review, and other reforms that would further professionalize the adjudication system.

Keywords: immigration law, asylum law, refugee, consistency, asylum office, immigration court, Executive Office of Immigration Review, Board of Immigration Appeals, judicial decision-making

JEL Classification: K39

Suggested Citation

Ramji-Nogales, Jaya and Schoenholtz, Andrew I. and Schrag, Philip G., Refugee Roulette: Disparities in Asylum Adjudication. Stanford Law Review, Vol. 60, 2008, Temple University Legal Studies Research Paper No. 2007-12, Available at SSRN:

Jaya Ramji-Nogales (Contact Author)

Temple University - James E. Beasley School of Law ( email )

1719 N. Broad Street
Philadelphia, PA 19122
United States
215-204-6430 (Phone)
215-204-1185 (Fax)


Andrew I. Schoenholtz

Georgetown University Law Center ( email )

Washington, DC
United States

Philip G. Schrag

Georgetown University Law Center ( email )

600 New Jersey Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20001
United States
202 662 9099 (Phone)

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