Determining Asylum Claims in the United States: A Case Study on the Implementation of Legal Norms in an Unstructured Adjudicatory Environment


In the decade since passage of comprehensive legislation addressing the legal status and protection needs of refugees and asylum seekers, United States refugee policy has been the subject of persistent controversy, and numerous proposals for reform of administrative processes have been presented. Despite this controversy – and the growing sense of crisis about the ability of administrative structures to adjudicate claims fairly and efficiently – until recently, there has been little attention paid to the practice of asylum adjudication in the administrative agencies. This Article reports on the first intensive empirical study of the United States’ asylum determination process.

The study, conducted over an eighteen-month period, consisted of an in-depth investigation of practices in one immigration court. Researchers attended 193 asylum hearings and interviewed attorneys, immigration judges, court personnel, and asylum applicants in order to focus on the process and quality of asylum adjudication. The research was completed in June of 1988 and distributed in a report to policy makers and interested members of the public in January of 1990. This Article reproduces the findings of that report. The results of this research are presented as a resource for future policy makers as well as for scholars interested in the immigration and asylum administrative process. The major conclusion of this research is that, in the cases observed, the practice of deciding asylum claims varied substantially from the governing case law, statutes, and regulations.

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