Special Report: They fled risk for a high-stakes gamble on U.S. immigration courts


OAKLAND, California (Reuters) – The dual Honduran women told scarcely matching stories to a immigration courts: Fear for their lives and for a lives of their children gathering them to find haven in a United States.

They were inaugurated in 2013 to a residence of a parent-teacher organisation during their children’s propagandize in a Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa. They hoped that mothers operative together could reject a aroused gangs that tormented a campus.

Instead, they became targets. Weeks apart, in a open of 2014, any of a women was confronted by armed squad members who vowed to kill them and their children if they didn’t accommodate a thugs’ demands.

Unaware of any other’s plight, both fled with their children, creation a dangerous trek opposing Mexico. Both were taken into control nearby Hidalgo, Texas, and finished adult anticipating any other in a same U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) apprehension core in Artesia, New Mexico. There, they practical for asylum.

That’s when their fates diverged.

Sandra Gutierrez assimilated her father in California, where her box was listened by a San Francisco immigration justice judge. At a finish of her haven conference in Sep 2016, she perceived a one-page form, with an “X” in a box subsequent to “granted.” She was giveaway to settle into life with her family in a United States.

The other woman, Ana, assimilated her daughter’s father in a southeastern United States, and her box was reserved to an immigration justice in Charlotte, North Carolina. The decider denied her petition and systematic her deported. She is now available a justice date after new lawyers got her box reopened.

Ana declined to be interviewed for this article. Through her lawyers, she asked that her full name not be used given of her capricious standing and her fear that Honduran gangs could find her.

The women’s lawyers framed their sole cases with some critical differences. However, a women pronounced their reasons for seeking haven were a same: Gangs had targeted them given of their impasse in a parent-teacher association, and for that, they and their families had been threatened.

Taken together, a dual cases – scarcely uncelebrated in their outlines yet with opposing outcomes – illustrate a discouraging fact: An immigrant’s possibility of being authorised to stay in a United States depends mostly on who hears a box and where it is heard.

Judge Stuart Couch, who listened Ana’s box in Charlotte, orders immigrants deported 89 percent of a time, according to a Reuters investigate of some-more than 370,000 cases listened in all 58 U.S. immigration courts over a past 10 years. Judge Dalin Holyoak, who listened Gutierrez’s box in San Francisco, orders deportation in 43 percent of cases.

In Charlotte, immigrants are systematic deported in 84 percent of cases, some-more than twice a rate in San Francisco, where 36 percent of cases finish in deportation.

Couch and Holyoak and their courts are not singular outliers, a investigate found. Variations among judges and courts are broad.

Judge Olivia Cassin in New York City allows immigrants to sojourn in a nation in 93 percent of cases she hears. Judge Monique Harris in Houston allows immigrants to stay in usually 4 percent of cases. In Atlanta, 89 percent of cases outcome in a deportation order. In New York City, 24 percent do.

The Reuters investigate used information from a Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR), a U.S. Justice Department section that oversees immigration courts. The count of deportations enclosed cases in that judges authorised immigrants to leave a nation voluntarily.

The investigate expelled immigrants who were in apprehension when their cases were listened given such cases are rubbed differently. It also expelled cases in that a newcomer did not seem in court, that scarcely always finish in a deportation order, and cases consummated yet a preference or sealed during a ask of a prosecutor.

About half a cases in a investigate were filed by haven seekers like a dual Honduran women. The rest were requests for termination of deportation orders or other adjustments to immigration status.


Of course, other factors change outcomes in immigration court. For example, U.S. supervision routine is some-more kindly toward people from some countries, reduction so for others.

Also, immigration judges are firm by precedents dynamic in a sovereign appeals justice that covers their location. Immigration courts in California and a Pacific Northwest tumble underneath a 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and they sequence in preference of immigrants distant some-more mostly than courts in a 4th Circuit, that includes North and South Carolina, Maryland and Virginia, Reuters found.

Even so, a Reuters investigate dynamic that after final for such factors, who hears a box and where it is listened sojourn arguable predictors of how a box will be decided. An newcomer was still 4 times as expected to be postulated haven by Holyoak in San Francisco as by Couch in Charlotte.

The Reuters investigate also found that an immigration judge’s sole characteristics and conditions can impact outcomes. Men are some-more expected than women to sequence deportation, as are judges who have worked as ICE prosecutors. The longer a decider has been serving, a some-more expected that decider is to extend asylum.

The commentary underscore what academics and supervision watchdogs have prolonged complained about U.S. immigration courts: Differences among judges and courts can describe a complement astray and even inhumane.

“It is clearly discouraging when we have these kinds of sum disparities,” pronounced Karen Musalo, executive of a Center for Gender Refugee Studies during a University of California Hastings School of a Law in San Francisco. “These are life or genocide matters. … Whether we win or either we remove shouldn’t count on a hurl of a bones of that decider gets your case.”

EOIR mouthpiece Kathryn Mattingly pronounced a organisation does not critique on outmost analyses of a data.

Devin O’Malley, a Department of Justice spokesman, challenged a Reuters analysis, citing “numerous opposing statements, miscalculations, and other information errors,” yet declined to elaborate further.

Immigration judges, allocated by a U.S. profession general, are not certified to pronounce on a record about cases.

Dana Marks, boss of a National Association of Immigration Judges, pronounced any box is like “a 1,000 square puzzle.” While dual cases competence demeanour matching on a surface, she said, any decider has to import a nuances of immigration law to concede someone to stay in a country, that could lead to opposite outcomes.

The doubt of equivalence of diagnosis among judges has gained coercion as a series of cases in immigration justice has ballooned to record highs. Under President Barack Obama, a courts began efforts to sinecure some-more immigration judges to revoke a system’s burgeoning backlog, that now stands during some-more than 620,000 cases, scarcely 100,000 of them combined given final December.

The administration of President Donald Trump is stability a effort. Attorney General Jeff Sessions pronounced in Apr that a Justice Department designed to sinecure some-more than 50 judges this year and 75 in 2018, that would put a sum series of sitting judges above 400.

Of a 28 immigration judges Sessions has allocated so far, 16 are former ICE prosecutors. That experience, a Reuters investigate found, creates them 23 percent some-more expected to sequence deportation. (Neither Holyoak nor Couch worked as an ICE prosecutor, according to their EOIR biographies.)

In a wish list of immigration proposals sent to Congress on Oct. 8, a White House pronounced that “lax authorised standards” had led to a immigration justice reserve and that “misguided authorised decisions have prevented a dismissal of countless rapist aliens, while also digest those aliens authorised to request for asylum.” Among a proposals offering in sell for a bargain with Congress on a roughly 800,000 “dreamers” – children brought to a nation illegally by their kin – a Trump administration pronounced it wanted to sinecure even some-more immigration judges and 1,000 ICE attorneys, while “establishing opening metrics for Immigration Judges.”


In 2014, an rare 68,000 kin and children, many of them tour assault and anarchy in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, crossed into a United States from Mexico – a interloper predicament that has contributed to a magisterial reserve of haven petitions. Many of a migrants, including Gutierrez and Ana, assured initial interviewers that they had a “credible fear” of returning home, a initial step in filing an haven claim.

Having come from a nation with one of a top murder rates in a universe competence have helped settle “credible fear.” But a dual women were already during a waste – precisely given they came from Honduras.

Country of start is a large cause in final who gets to stay in a United States given immigrants from some countries are afforded special protections. For example, courts ruled in preference of Chinese immigrants 75 percent of a time, a Reuters investigate found. A 1996 law stretched a clarification of domestic refugees to embody people who are forced to cancel a child or bear sterilization, permitting Chinese women to explain harm underneath Beijing’s coercive birth-control policies.

Hondurans suffer no special considerations. They were authorised to stay in a United States in usually 16 percent of cases, a Reuters investigate found.

The mass exodus from Central America was underneath approach when Gutierrez and Ana were inaugurated to a residence of a parent-teacher organisation during their children’s propagandize in open 2013.

Two antithesis gangs – a Barrio 18 and a Mara Salvatrucha, also famous as MS-13 – were handling brazenly in a neighborhood. The year before, according to military annals in Honduras, squad members killed a propagandize confidence guard. Now, they were extorting teachers, offered drugs plainly and assaulting or murdering anyone who confronted them.

The new six-member organisation residence set about perplexing to urge confidence during a school, that sits on a mud highway behind a high wall surfaced with razor wire.

“Before, no one wanted to contend anything about a gangs,” Gutierrez said. “We were a dauntless ones. The prior boss was a man, so we thought, ‘We are women, they won’t do anything to us.’ ”

The school’s principal, who asked that he and a propagandize not be identified out of fear of retaliation, worked with a board. They had early success, he said, when they swayed military to yield officers to ensure a school. But a patrols left after a few weeks, substantially intimidated by a gangs.

One dusk in Apr 2014, Gutierrez was examination radio during home with her dual sons, ages 5 and 11, when she listened banging during a front door. Her comparison child famous a 3 armed and heavily tattooed immature organisation on a bob as a same ones who had thrown him to a belligerent progressing that day, revelation him, not for a initial time, that they wanted him to join their ranks. Now they had come to broach a summary to Gutierrez.

“They pronounced they knew we was concerned in a parents’ association,” Gutierrez said. “They pronounced they would kill me and my children.

“I began to panic and shake,” she said. “I thought, ‘I have to go now. we am not going to risk my child’s life.’ ”

She fast packaged some backpacks for her and her children and called a usually crony she knew who had a car. They gathering all night to her friend’s mother’s residence in another town.


Two months later, according to justice documents, Ana was walking her 7-year-old daughter home from propagandize when 3 members of a antithesis squad confronted them. Two of them grabbed Ana and her daughter, pinned their wrists behind their backs, and forked a gun during a child’s head. The third forked a gun during Ana’s head. They demanded that a remuneration of some-more than $5,000 be delivered in 24 hours, a outrageous sum for a lady who sole tortillas for a living.

Ana testified in her haven conference that she knew they were squad members “because they were dressed in relaxed wardrobe and they also had nauseous tattoos … all over their bodies and faces.”

Ana and her daughter ran home and then, fearing a squad would come after them, fled out a behind door. “We had to burst over a wall, and we harm my feet doing so,” she pronounced in an affidavit. “I was unfortunate and knew that we had to leave – my daughter’s life and cave were in danger.”

The propagandize principal pronounced he understands given Gutierrez and Ana left Honduras. “Because there were no military here, (the gangs) did what they wanted,” he said. “They said, ‘We’re going to kill a members of a parent-teacher organisation to get them out of here.’ So a women fled.”

Gutierrez hid for dual months during her friend’s mother’s residence outward Tegucigalpa. She assimilated another lady and, with their children, they set out to cranky Mexico. On a journey, they were kidnapped – common for Central American migrants – and hold for a $3,500 ransom. Gutierrez contacted kin who connected a money. The kidnappers expelled her and her dual sons nearby a U.S. border.

There they piled with another organisation of migrants into an inflatable raft and crossed a Rio Grande, a limit between Mexico and a United States. They landed nearby Hidalgo, Texas.

After walking for an hour and a half, mislaid and desperate, Gutierrez and her sons sat down in a core of a mud highway and waited for someone to pass. Two officials in uniforms picked them up. They were eventually eliminated to a ICE apprehension core in Artesia.

Ana fled with her daughter a night a squad members threatened them on a street. “We bought a train pass to go to Guatemala and from Guatemala to Mexico and to a U.S.-Mexico border,” according to her justice testimony. The tour took 3 weeks. In Mexico, she hired a coyote – a raider – to assistance them cranky into a United States and afterwards incited herself in to Border Patrol agents nearby Hidalgo. She arrived during a Artesia apprehension core usually weeks after Gutierrez.

“The other women in a core told me that there was someone else from Honduras who we competence know, yet we wasn’t certain who they were articulate about,” Gutierrez said. “And afterwards one day we went to lunch, and there they were.”

Gutierrez pronounced that was when she initial schooled that her associate parent-teacher organisation residence member had been threatened and had fled from home.

Volunteer lawyers helped a women ready and contention their applications for asylum.

In late 2014, a dual women were expelled on bond. Gutierrez altered with her boys to Oakland, California, to join her husband, and petitioned to have her box altered to San Francisco. Ana altered with her daughter to live with her daughter’s father and petitioned to have her box altered to Charlotte.


Many immigrants expelled on bond before their cases are listened have no suspicion that where they settle could make a disproportion between receiving authorised standing and deportation.

People informed with a complement are good wakeful of a difference. When Theodore Murphy, a former ICE prosecutor who now represents immigrants, has a customer in a bureau with a high deportation rate yet nearby one with a reduce rate, “I tell them to move,” he said.

The Charlotte justice that would hear Ana’s box was one of 5 jurisdictions labeled “asylum giveaway zones” by a organisation of newcomer advocates in combined testimony final Dec before a Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. The courts in Dallas, Houston, Las Vegas and Atlanta also perceived a designation.

The advocates testified that, while haven is postulated in scarcely half of cases nationwide, Charlotte judges postulated haven in usually 13 percent of cases in 2015. The Charlotte justice was singled out for displaying a sole “bias opposite Central American squad and gender-related haven claims.”

Couch is a toughest of Charlotte’s 3 immigration judges, according to a Reuters analysis.

The Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a investigate classification during Syracuse University in New York, initial sounded a alarm about disparities in immigration justice decisions in 2006. The subsequent year, researchers during Temple University and Georgetown Law School resolved in a investigate patrician “Refugee Roulette” that “in many cases, a many critical impulse in an haven box is a benefaction in that a clerk incidentally assigns an focus to a sole haven officer or immigration judge.” In 2008, a U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) found identical disparities in a possess study.

In response to a rising criticism, a Executive Office for Immigration Review began tracking decisions to brand judges with scarcely high or low rates of extenuation asylum. Mattingly, a EOIR spokeswoman, pronounced a organisation hold training sessions for judges to residence a disparities in 2008 and 2009. It afterwards combined a complement for a open to record complaints opposite immigration judges.

In a 2016 report, a GAO found that tiny had changed. EOIR hold a two-day training event final year. There is no training on a 2017 calendar.

From 2012 to 2016, EOIR perceived 624 complaints opposite judges. The 138 complaints lodged in 2016 alone enclosed allegations of bias, as good as concerns about due routine and judges’ control within a courtroom. Of a 102 complaints that had been resolved when a information were published, usually 3 resulted in discipline, tangible as “reprimand” or “suspension” of a judge. “Corrective actions” such as conversing or training were taken in 39 cases. Close to half a complaints were dismissed.

The organisation does not brand judges who were a subjects of complaints.

Mattingly, a EOIR spokeswoman, pronounced a organisation “takes severely any claims of undue and poignant anomalies in immigration decider decision-making and takes stairs to weigh disparities in immigration adjudications.”


Asylum field can't advantage authorised U.S. residency given they fled their countries in mortal fear of polite struggle or prevalent crime or a healthy disaster. They contingency remonstrate a justice that they have probable fears of harm in their nation given of their race, religion, nationality, domestic opinions or membership in a sole amicable group. The clarification of a “particular amicable group” has been theme to opposing interpretations in a courts, yet in general, such a organisation comprises people who share simple beliefs or traits that can’t or shouldn’t have to be changed.

In a San Francisco court, Gutierrez’s lawyers argued that she competent for haven given as a personality of a parent-teacher association, she was during risk for her domestic opinion – her mount opposite gangs – and for belonging to a sole amicable organisation of Hondurans opposite to squad assault and recruitment in schools. The lawyers also argued that she was partial of another sole amicable organisation as a family member of someone underneath threat, given a gangs had terrorized her son in perplexing to partisan him.

Holyoak was convinced. Gutierrez told Reuters that during her final hearing, a decider apologized for seeking so many questions about what had been a unpleasant time in her life, explaining that he had indispensable to settle her credibility.

In a Charlotte court, Ana’s counsel focused some-more narrowly on her domestic opinion, arguing that she was during risk of harm for her antithesis to gangs in her position on a parent-teacher organisation board.

After conference Ana’s case, Couch resolved in his combined opinion that Ana was not authorised for haven given she had “not demonstrated a probable fear of destiny harm on comment of a statutorily stable ground.” He wasn’t assured that she risked harm in Honduras given of her domestic opinion.

Well-established law recognizes family as a stable amicable group, according to a Center for Gender Refugee Studies. Cases that explain antithesis to gangs as a stable domestic opinion, a core says, have generated fewer precedent-setting decisions, creation that justification a some-more formidable one to win in court, yet it has prevailed in some cases.

Ana’s response to Couch’s endless doubt played a partial in a decision. In immigration court, a haven seeker is typically a usually witness. As a result, “credibility is unequivocally a pivotal factor. Persecutors don’t give affidavits,” pronounced Andrew Arthur, a former immigration decider who now works during a Center for Immigration Studies, a nonprofit classification that supports reduce levels of immigration.

Couch wrote in his opinion that Ana’s problem recounting a names of a women on a organisation residence weighed opposite her credibility. He remarkable that she testified about her fears of a squad “with a prosaic impact and tiny emotion,” displaying a “poor demeanor” that “did not support her credibility.”

The decider also questioned why, in an early talk with an haven officer, Ana never mentioned threats to a parent-teacher association, and instead pronounced she suspicion a gangs were targeting her for a income her daughter’s father was promulgation from a United States to build a residence in Honduras.

Ana’s avowal that she schooled from Gutierrez in apprehension about squad threats to a parent-teacher organisation was not “persuasive,” Couch wrote. “The justification indicates this is a box of rapist coercion that a respondent attempts to conform into an imputed domestic opinion claim.”


Gutierrez pronounced Ana told her in one of their occasional phone conversations that she felt intimidated by a heated doubt of a ICE attorney. Gutierrez also pronounced her crony “is really forgetful. … It’s not that she is lying. It’s usually that she forgets things.”

Lisa Knox, a counsel who represented Gutierrez, pronounced judges where she practices tend to give field a advantage of a doubt. “They have some-more bargain of mishap survivors and a problem they competence have in recounting certain sum and tiny discrepancies,” she said.

Further, Knox said, haven seekers aren’t meditative about a finer points of U.S. haven law when they are tour persecution. “People uncover adult in a bureau (and) they have no suspicion given someone wants to kill them. They usually know someone wants to kill them.”

Ana’s counsel appealed her box to a Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA), a initial step in a appellate process. This time, her counsel enclosed arguments about her membership in a sole amicable group. She lost. In a three-page ruling, one residence member pronounced Ana’s counsel could not deliver a new justification on interest and concluded with Couch that Ana hadn’t valid a domestic ground behind a squad members’ attack.

Ana missed a deadline to interest a BIA preference to a 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals given her counsel confused a deadline. She petitioned a BIA by new lawyers to free her box and send it behind to a immigration justice to concede her to benefaction new justification of her persecution. The new lawyers argued that her prior illustration had been ineffective.

In July, a BIA postulated Ana a right to a rehearing in immigration court, promulgation her box behind to Charlotte, where it could be listened again by Couch.

Gutierrez can live and work legally in a United States and will eventually be means to request for citizenship. The 43-year-old, who worked as a helper in Honduras, lives in a tiny one-bedroom unit with her husband, her dual sons – now 15 and 8 – her adult daughter and her grandson. She works as an bureau janitor and is holding English classes. Her boys are in school. The comparison one, once threatened by gangs in Honduras, likes study story and math and is training to play a cello.

Ana, 31, has had a baby given nearing in a United States and has been postulated work authorisation while she awaits a final preference on her case. She and her lawyers declined to share some-more minute information about her conditions given she stays aroused of a gangs in Honduras.

“I am really disturbed about her,” Gutierrez said. “The conditions in a nation is removing worse and worse.”

Last February, a 50-year-old lady and her 29-year-old son who were offered food during a propagandize Gutierrez and Ana’s children attended were kidnapped from their home and decapitated, according to military records.

The control of a son was placed on a physique of a mom and a control of a mom was placed on a physique of a son. The murders, like some-more than 93 percent of crimes in Honduras, sojourn unsolved.

Reporting by Mica Rosenberg in Oakland, California, and Reade Levinson and Ryan McNeill in New York. Additional stating by Gustavo Palencia in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, and Kristina Cooke in San Francisco. Edited by Sue Horton, Janet Roberts and John Blanton.


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