What do asylum statistics actually say?

On Saturday, The New York Times published an article by Semple, Goldstein and Singer about a cottage industry of asylum fraud in New York's Chinatown. The article shines a light on a murky world where fake stories and fraudulent documents about political persecution are sold, rehearsed, coached, and disseminated. It is an inevitable part of the immigration system given the difficulty of obtaining a Greencard if one is not closely related to a U.S. citizen or Lawful Permanent resident or does not possess the employment skills needed by U.S. employers.

The article also recounts some statistics in an attempt to assess the phenomenon of fraudulent Chinese asylum claims.

Though the prevalence of fraud is unknown, federal officials appear to regard the applicant pool in New York with considerable suspicion. In fiscal year 2013, asylum officers around the country granted 40 percent of all Chinese asylum requests, according to government data. In New York City, asylum officers approved only 15 percent.

The underlying assumption in these statements is a misplaced trust in the "objectivity" of statistics and an erroneous assumption that the adjudicators are in fact correct and therefore the low grant rate suggests that the fraud must indeed be high. But that low grant rate of 15% must be taken into context. The reporters assume uniformity, consistency, and objectivity in the asylum adjudications across the country when in fact there are wild variations within the same immigration court as reported by TRAC and even acknowledged by the government's own General Accounting Office.

What these two reports show is that even when holding a host of relevant variables constant, including the underlying case facts that should drive the decision, the most frequent explanation for the denial or grant of asylum was the identity of the judge. It wasn't about one's story or what the aylum seeker said, it was about which Immigration Judge the applicant got.

The arbitrariness which plagues the asylum system was also well documented in Phil Schrag, Andy Schoenholtz, and Jaya Ramji-Nogales' Refugee Roulette.

No one would say there is no fraud in the asylum system and that those shady facilitators do not exist.  The reporters are right that people try to game the system, but larger problems are also inherent in the system itself that adjudicates asylum claims without consistency or neutrality thereby harming bonafide asylum seekers and the crediblity of the asylum process.