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Biden admin changes have led to a historic number of court-granted asylum cases. But there are some consequences, too.

The number of people granted asylum in immigration courts more than doubled over the last year, but speeding up cases made it harder for people to find evidence and lawyers.
People from Haiti stand at a gap in the U.S.-Mexico border wall after having traveled from South America to the United States on Dec. 10, 2021 in Yuma, Ariz.
People stand at a gap in the U.S.-Mexico border wall in Yuma, Ariz., after having traveled from South America to the U.S. on Dec. 10, 2021.John Moore / Getty Images file

The number of people granted asylum in immigration courts hit a historic high this fiscal year under the Biden administration's adjustments to the asylum process, a recent data analysis shows.

But only 7% of families whose cases were moved to the front of the line through the administration's Dedicated Docket program got asylum, according to an analysis by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, or TRAC, based at Syracuse University.

The number of people granted asylum by immigration judges rose from 8,495 in fiscal year 2021 to 23,686 in fiscal year 2022, according to the report.

The TRAC report, released in late November, said the 2022 number was the largest number of individuals granted asylum in any year in the courts' history. The total number of decisions also more than doubled from 24,810 to 51,607.

“He really had an impact on speeding up the asylum process,” Susan Long, co-director of TRAC and an associate professor of managerial statistics at Syracuse, said of President Joe Biden. 

However, the analysis also showed that grants of asylum have slowed, with 50% of cases granted asylum in June falling to 41% of cases in September. In cases closed in three months to 18 months since July, the asylum grant rates have fallen 31 %.

Grant rates were higher for people who had lawyers, about 2 1/2 times more than those without representation. About 18% of those without lawyers got asylum. Also, those released from detention had better asylum grant rates, 54% this fiscal year, compared to those who were detained, 15% of whom were granted asylum.

The administration created the dedicated docket to speed up the processing of asylum requests from families who arrived on the southern border. More than 110,000 cases have been sent there and nearly 40,000 are now closed, TRAC reported.

Cases assigned to dedicated dockets have been expedited ahead of an existing approximately 2 million case backlog in the courts.

TRAC found that only a third, 33%, of those on the docket, were even able to file the complex asylum applications and about the same share, 34%, had attorneys. Only 2,984 of 39,187 closed cases of families on the dedicated docket were granted asylum.

With sped-up dockets, people have less time to find an attorney or gather evidence or witnesses for their cases, Long said.

Former Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump also tried to speed up asylum cases as Biden has done, and in all cases it was difficult for the asylum-seekers to get attorneys and to succeed in getting asylum, said Victoria Neilson, supervising attorney at the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild.

"I don't think any of those administrations was speeding them up because they thought it would be more fair for the asylum-seeker. I think they thought they could get some sort of political points by saying they were essentially punishing the most recent border crossers," she said.

The nation’s asylum process is meant to provide refuge to people who fear persecution in their country because of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or because they belong to a “particular social group”.

The asylum process is getting renewed attention with the impending lifting of Title 42, a Trump administration border restriction implemented during the pandemic to expel hundreds of thousands of people showing up at the border. 

The Biden administration plans to end Title 42 by a court-imposed Dec. 21 deadline. Many people who arrive at the border, including those who cross illegally, turn themselves over to border enforcement officers and ask for asylum. Officials expect increases in the number of migrants crossing the border as the expulsions end.

In anticipation, the Biden administration is working on plans to reduce the number of people eligible for asylum at the border.

The asylum process is very complex, starting with interviews at the border to decide whether there is a “credible fear” of harm or persecution in their country of origin to appeals of court decisions.

Not all cases reach an immigration court and there are different streams of asylum-seekers depending on whether or not they are in removal proceedings. The TRAC analysis is based only on cases that go to court, Long said.

The administration set a goal of issuing decisions in the dedicated docket cases within 300 days, which the Biden administration has been successful in meeting. Asylum cases this year are taking an average of 275 days to complete , starting from the date that a notice to appear in immigration court is issued, TRAC reported.

The grants of asylum in 28% of cases sent to the dedicated docket falls far below the asylum grants in 52% of all other regular asylum proceedings for the 2022 fiscal year. TRAC did a deeper analysis on the dedicated docket Dec. 6.

The results show that “you can do it fast or you can do it fair, but not both,” Long said.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, part of the Department of Homeland Security, deals with cases of people not in removal proceedings. Asylum officers can refer cases it rejects to the immigration courts. TRAC found that more than three-quarters of cases the agency had rejected were granted asylum by the immigration courts.

Neilson questioned why so many grantable cases were being referred to immigration judges.

Asylum-seekers come from all over the world, but there are some coming from certain countries more than others, which can change depending on the country's conditions and world politics. 

In 2021, there were 21 countries that had at least 100 asylum-seekers. Of them, 17 countries saw increases in grant rates. Grant rates for Nepal, India, Nicaragua and Colombia dropped from fiscal year 2021 to fiscal year 2022, according to the TRAC analysis. 

The number of people who received asylum grants increased in 20 of those 21 countries. Only Cuba did not see such an increase. 

For applicants from Eritrea, 89% got asylum, the highest grant rates among asylum-seekers from the 21 countries. Applicants from Russia and Cameroon were tied for second, with 88% grant rates each.

Brazil came in at the bottom with 16% granted asylum. Just 23% of people from Ecuador, or 3,380, were granted asylum, placing the country near the bottom. But the number was a tenfold increase from the 298 granted asylum in 2021, the analysts found.

The administration has also tried to deal with cases before they go to court.

The administration has been phasing in procedures that allow asylum officers on the border to decide whether people who have shown they have a credible fear of persecution and are in a sped-up process for removal from the country should be granted asylum, bypassing a court process. The asylum officers' decisions are not included in TRAC data. That tactic has drawn heavy opposition from immigration advocates.

Any increase in arrivals after Title 42 is lifted won’t immediately be reflected in court asylum grants because the asylum decisions are generally the same cases of people who just arrived at the border. 

“We’ll just have more people we’ll have to process,” Long said.