Lives in the Balance

Asylum Adjudication by the Department of Homeland Security

286 pages

114 figures, 9 tables, 1 map

January, 2014

ISBN: 9780814708767



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Andrew I. Schoenholtz is Visiting Professor, Director of the Human Rights Institute, and Director of the Center for Applied Legal Studies at Georgetown University Law Center. He is Deputy Director of the Institute for the Study of International Migration at Georgetown University School of Foreign Service.

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Philip G. Schrag is the Delaney Family Professor of Public Interest Law and Director of the Center for Applied Legal Studies at Georgetown University Law Center.

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Jaya Ramji-Nogales is Associate Professor of Law and Co-Director of the Institute for International Law and Public Policy at Temple University’s Beasley School of Law.

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Although Americans generally think that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is focused only on preventing terrorism, one office within that agency has a humanitarian mission. Its Asylum Office adjudicates applications from people fleeing persecution in their homelands. Lives in the Balance is a careful empirical analysis of how Homeland Security decided these asylum cases over a recent fourteen-year period.
Day in and day out, asylum officers make decisions with life-or-death consequences: determining which applicants are telling the truth and are at risk of persecution in their home countries, and which are ineligible for refugee status in America. In Lives in the Balance, the authors analyze a database of 383,000 cases provided to them by the government in order to better understand the effect on grant rates of a host of factors unrelated to the merits of asylum claims, including the one-year filing deadline, whether applicants entered the United States with a visa, whether applicants had dependents, whether they were represented, how many asylum cases their adjudicator had previously decided, and whether or not their adjudicator was a lawyer. The authors also examine the degree to which decisions were consistent among the eight regional asylum offices and within each of those offices. The authors’ recommendations­, including repeal of the one-year deadline­, would improve the adjudication process by reducing the impact of non-merits factors on asylum decisions. If adopted by the government, these proposals would improve the accuracy of outcomes for those whose lives hang in the balance.


  • "Lives in the Balance is chock-full of insights and never-before-seen research about the men and women who decide asylum cases each and every day. Schoenholtz, Schrag, and Ramji-Nogales have elevated the discourse around the asylum process and deserve praise for publishing a compelling and well-timed book.  It is a must-read for anyone seeking a holistic understanding about the Asylum Office and the narratives of public servants who make life-changing decisions."

    —Shoba Sivaprasad Wadhia, Center for Immigrants’ Rights, The Pennsylvania State University

  • "Lives in the Balance is a must-read for anyone who cares about human rights and the long-standing U.S. commitment to protect those fleeing persecution. . . . Its findings are often surprising, and always illuminating. Policymakers, scholars and practitioners alike will be well served by reading Lives in the Balance. This eminently readable volume is revelatory, and on the basis of its findings, we can better appreciate the strengths of the current system, as well as areas for potential reform and improvement."

    —Karen Musalo, U.C. Hastings College of Law

  • “Without a doubt, Lives in the Balance is a ground-breaking contribution to the study of U.S. asylum law and a comprehensive work on which much future analysis will be based.  It should be required reading for not just those who represent asylum seekers or adjudicate asylum claims but for anyone who wishes to understand or reform the U.S. asylum system.”

    Political Science Quarterly

  • “The book contributes to growing work on the 'culture of disbelief,' a prevalent issue among state institutions tasked with handling asylum applications. It approaches these difficult issues… in a systematic way, analyzing the steps and roles played by each department within the asylum determination process through quantitative and qualitative methodologies.”

    International Migration Review