Refugee Roulette

Disparities in Asylum Adjudication and Proposals for Reform

354 pages

62 illustrations

April, 2011

ISBN: 9780814741061



Also available in




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.

All books by Jaya Ramji-Nogales

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.

All books by Andrew I. Schoenholtz

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.

All books by Philip G. Schrag

All books by Edward M. Kennedy

Through the Refugee Act of 1980, the United States offers the prospect of safety to people who flee to America to escape rape, torture, and even death in their native countries. In order to be granted asylum, however, an applicant must prove to an asylum officer or immigration judge that she has a well-founded fear of persecution in her homeland. The chance of winning asylum should have little if anything to do with the personality of the official to whom a case is randomly assigned, but in a ground-breaking and shocking study, Jaya Ramji-Nogales, Andrew I. Schoenholtz, and Philip G. Schrag learned that life-or-death asylum decisions are too frequently influenced by random factors relating to the decision makers. In many cases, the most important moment in an asylum case is the instant in which a clerk randomly assigns the application to an adjudicator. The system, in its current state, is like a game of chance.

Refugee Roulette is the first analysis of decisions at all four levels of the asylum adjudication process: the Department of Homeland Security, the immigration courts, the Board of Immigration Appeals, and the United States Courts of Appeals. The data reveal tremendous disparities in asylum approval rates, even when different adjudicators in the same office each considered large numbers of applications from nationals of the same country. After providing a thorough empirical analysis, the authors make recommendations for future reform. Original essays by eight scholars and policy makers then discuss the authors’ research and recommendations

Contributors: Bruce Einhorn, Steven Legomsky, Audrey Macklin, M. Margaret McKeown, Allegra McLeod, Carrie Menkel-Meadow, Margaret Taylor, and Robert Thomas.


  • “The study concerns one ‘big idea’ which, importantly, is accessible to both lawyers and laymen without any special jurisprudential or philosophical introduction: the right to have like cases treated alike… [The authors] seem to be stones that have rubbed each other smooth. Their prose is beautifully clear throughout.”

    Modern Law Review

  • Refugee Roulette reveals how far the nation’s asylum adjudication system has veered from its traditional moorings of equal justice under law and protection for those in danger of political persecution. The authors bring impressive experience, care, and seasoned judgment to the table. Refugee Roulette should serve as a blueprint for action by policymakers and a new administration.”

    —Doris Meissner, Former Commissioner, U.S. Immigration and Naturalization, Service and Senior Fellow, Migration Polic

  • “This pathbreaking study of the asylum system in the United States, coupled with the comparative commentary, reveals the enormous challenges of making fair decisions about asylum claims when the underlying facts are far away and decisions rest on assessments of credibility—of people who often do not speak the language of the judge. At its core, this work raises the profound question of when a system of decision making qualifies to be called a ‘court.’ ”

    —Judith Resnik, Arthur Liman Professor of Law, Yale Law School

  • “Insiders have long bemoaned the arbitrary and unfair outcomes of the U.S. asylum system. Finally we have a meticulous and compelling study that lays bare the indisputable problems and essential remedies for all to see.”

    —Jacqueline Bhabha, Jeremiah Smith Jnr Lecturer, Harvard Law School, Director, University Committee on Human Rights Studies

  • “A clarion call for a new humanitarian and transparent system that must be brought into line with our supposed democratic principles, particularly in this era of Obama reform. A must-read for students of immigration law and international human rights.”

    —David Brotherton, Professor and Chair, Department of Sociology, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, The City University of New York