OGDEN — Immigration attorney Jonathan Bachison remembers — with clarity — the day earlier this month that one of his clients, a Salvadoran woman, won her asylum hearing in federal immigration court.
The woman, now living in Ogden, "knelt down in court and said a prayer of thanks," he recalled. "That's the level of stress she was feeling."
It can be an uphill battle for immigrants seeking asylum in the United States, particularly Utah, part of the reason the Feb. 14 decision in U.S. immigration court in West Valley City stuck out for Bachison. In fact, the Salvadoran woman beat the odds, as figures compiled by Syracuse University show that the vast majority of asylum cases in Utah, more than 80 percent of them, face rejection from the three U.S. immigration judges serving the state.
The difficulty is known among immigration attorneys, who attribute the low success rate, in part, to the sorts of asylum cases most common in Utah — Central Americans seeking refuge due to violence, chiefly gang violence, in their home countries.
"In Utah, we're going to get a lot more Central American cases because we're closer to the border," Bachison said. The problem for those from the region seeking asylum, however — no matter the dire nature of the circumstances in their home countries, their cases frequently don't have the required element of persecution, at least not in the eyes of immigration judges.
And as President Donald Trump pushes for change to make it even harder for asylum seekers, they aren't predicting a shift in the trend. In fact, Trump's efforts — including new guidelines making some asylum seekers stay in Mexico while their cases are decided — may be yielding the results he presumably seeks, checking their influx into the country.
"I think it makes it more difficult for people to get into the system. It may deter folks from coming over," said Francisco Roman, an Ogden-based immigration attorney, like Bachison.
According to the data from Syracuse's Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, or TRAC, the three U.S. immigration judges serving Utah decided 840 asylum cases between fiscal years 2013 and 2018, rejecting 81.1 percent of them. That gives the West Valley City judges, collectively, the 21st highest denial rate among the 54 cities with immigration courts
The two Chaparral, New Mexico, judges, topped the list, rejecting 95.8 percent of the cases before them. Nationally, the 347 judges tracked rejected 55.6 percent of asylum requests.
"It's difficult to take these cases because it's such an uphill battle," Roman said.
He's sympathetic to the stories of gang-related violence of his clients, he said, but still, it can be daunting, make him feel defeated even before he begins. Latinos account for about 30 percent of Ogden's population, the vast majority of them Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, but there are also many in the Hispanic community with roots in Central America.
Among Utah's three judges, Phillip Truman is the toughest, the TRAC data shows. He denied 93.6 percent of asylum requests, granting the rest, just 6.4 percent. Judge Christopher Greer denied 83.1 percent of such requests while the figure was 73.2 percent for Judge David Anderson.
On the flip side, immigration judges in New York City denied asylum claims just 20.1 percent of the time, granting 79.9 percent of requests.
'VIOLENCE ISN'T A PROTECTED CATEGORY'
Other locales around the country where asylum seekers face higher rates of success, like New York and San Francisco, may see different sorts of cases. The higher success rate in San Francisco, for instance, may be due to a higher concentration of claims by Chinese nationals who can make stronger cases for political or religious persecution, Bachison said.
The Salvadoran woman who won her case, he noted, didn't fit the typical mold. "It was a rare scenario," Bachison said.
Unlike many Central Americans coming to the United States and Utah, she had faced danger chiefly for political reasons, not from the rampant gangs that make life tough for so many in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. She had been involved in politics in her community, Bachison said, before she was forced out by the mayor there.
More typical among Salvadorans, Guatemalans and Hondurans seeking asylum are stories of violence and persecution at the hands of gang members. However unfortunate such cases, U.S. asylum laws aren't designed specifically with them in mind.
"Gang violence isn't a protected category. Just being the victim of violence doesn't qualify for any of them," said Bachison, who's noticed fewer calls of late from Central Americans seeking help with asylum claims. "That's why we see the abysmal denial rate..."
The particulars of individual clients' cases may create wiggle room for success, but in general "it's very difficult," Roman said.
Indeed, while their cases remain unresolved, Central American asylum seekers may have temporary relief, be able to live and work lawfully in the United States. But if their cases are ultimately rejected, they can face deportation, and Bachison said at that point, he frequently loses contact with his Central American clients.
"I think most of them disappear," he said.