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Jason Dzubow on Political Asylum

Answering the Impossible Question

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Possibly the most common question I hear at initial consultations with asylum seekers is, "What are the chances that I will win my case?" It's a reasonable question. People want to know the likelihood of success before they start any endeavor. The problem is, it's impossible to answer this question. Why is that?
The other Impossible Question: "Does this dress make me look fat?"

One reason is mathematical. Probabilities are tricky to calculate and even more tricky to understand. Also, it is very hard to apply probabilities in a meaningful way to a single event. What does it mean, for example, when the weather report shows a 30% chance of rain? If you run 100 computer simulations of the weather, it will rain 30 times. But in the real world, it will either rain or it won't. The problem is that we do not have complete information to start with, and that there are too many variables to predict precisely how the weather will evolve over time. Without sufficient information, we have to approximate, and we are left with a range of possible outcomes and probabilities. As Niels Bohr observed, "Prediction is very difficult, especially if it's about the future."

Another difficulty is that predicting case outcomes involves human beings, and we are a notoriously capricious species. At the outset of a case, the lawyer may not know whether the client can get needed evidence, or whether she can remember her testimony, or how a witness will behave. Also, the lawyer may not know who the fact finder will be (with Immigration Court cases, we usually know in advance; for Asylum Office cases, we never know until the day of the interview). Also, what if the fact finder is in a particularly good or bad mood on the day of the case? Or what if she is hungry during the case (one Israeli study famously correlated favorable parole decisions to whether the judge had recently eaten lunch!)? These "human factors" can greatly affect the decision, and few of them can be known in advance, which again makes predicting difficult.


That's not to say we know nothing about the likelihood of success. For Immigration Court cases, there is data available about the grant rates of individual Judges. Also, there is some data available about Asylum Office grant rates. Of course, all of this is very general and does not necessarily bear much relationship to the likely outcome in a given individual's case, but I suppose it's better than nothing.


As a lawyer, once you get a sense for asylum cases, you can at least give the client some idea about the outcome. I can tell a strong case from a weak case, for example. If the client has a lot of credible evidence, has suffered past persecution on account of a protected ground, and faces some likelihood of future harm, the client has a strong case. The most I will say to such a prospective client is that, "If the adjudicator believes that you are telling the truth, you should win your case." I might also say that since the corroborating evidence is strong, it is likely that the adjudicator will believe the claim.


I do think there is a basic human desire behind the question about the chances for success, and that is the desire for certainty. Asylum cases now take years, and it is very difficult to live your life for so long under the threat of deportation. When the clients ask about the likelihood of success, I know part of what they want is reassurance. Even if the case is weak, they want to feel like they have a chance. They want to feel that what they are building in the U.S. while they wait for a decision will not all be lost. How, then, do we balance the need for certainty with providing an honest evaluation of the case?


For my clients, I try to give them both honesty and hope. In the beginning, I give the client my honest assessment of the case and the likelihood of success. Knowing my assessment (whether it is good or bad), if the client decides to go forward, my focus shifts to creating the strongest case possible with the facts and evidence available, and to helping reassure the clients so they feel some hope. I try to encourage the client to do what is within their power to make the case better: Gather evidence, talk to witnesses, find experts, etc. At least this helps empower the client a bit, and it gives them some agency over their case outcome.


Different lawyers do things differently, and there are probably many "right" ways to balance realism and hope. There are also wrong ways. Any lawyer who "guarantees" you will win an asylum case is a lawyer you should avoid. No lawyer can guarantee a win because we do not make the decisions--the government does. Also, lawyers who make dubious promises ("I am good friends with your Judge, so I can get you a quicker hearing date") are probably lying to get your business. Be careful, and remember that offers that seem too good to be true probably are. For all its flaws, the American immigration system is largely free from corruption. Lawyers don't have special relationships with adjudicators that can change outcomes or speed adjudication. When a lawyer oversells hope at the expense of realism, you are safer to seek a different attorney; one who is more interested in telling the truth than in selling you his services.


So when a prospective client asks me the chances for success, I'll try to give the best evaluation I can, so that the person can make an informed choice about whether to file an asylum case. Once the case is started, I will try to address weakness and gather evidence to maximize the chances for a win. I will also try to encourage the client, so that she has some hope during the long wait.

Originally posted on the Asylumist: www.Asylumist.com.

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