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Miami's Immigrant-Asylum Denials Hit 18-Year High in 2018, Data Shows

Miami's Immigrant-Asylum Denials Hit 18-Year High in 2018, Data Shows
In both sad and entirely predictable news, immigration-asylum applications in Miami were denied at rates  virtually unseen in two decades, according to data released today by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), a group at Syracuse University.

Immigration officials denied 86 percent of asylum applications during the 2018 fiscal year, which ended in September, the Clearinghouse concluded. That's the highest denial rate in Miami since at least 2001. (TRAC's data doesn't go past that year.) The Sun Sentinel first reported the data release earlier today.

On a national level, TRAC wrote today that the nation saw a massive spike in asylum and immigration-court decisions in 2018, which suggests the Trump administration is pushing courts to churn through immigration cases much faster. Most of the new decisions were denials. TRAC noted that, though denial rates initially spiked when Trump took office in 2017, the rates fell and then rose again this past June, when then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions significantly limited the ways in which judges are allowed to grant asylum.

"Fiscal year 2018 broke records for the number of decisions (42,224) by immigration judges granting or denying asylum," TRAC writes. "Denials grew faster than grants, pushing denial rates up as well. The 42,224 decisions represented a 40 percent jump from decisions during FY 2017, and an 89 percent increase over the number of asylum decisions of two years ago."

Overall, Miami's immigration court heard the second-largest number of cases in America last year (3,285), behind only New York's. There are two other immigration courtrooms in Florida: Orlando's court also rejected 85 percent of applicants and hit an 18-year high for denials. (A second, much smaller courtroom exists at Miami's Krome Service Processing Center, an immigration-detention facility in Southwest Miami-Dade. That court's rejection rates have historically hovered around 90 percent, and the court's 87.5 percent denial rate in 2018 generally tracked with the court's overall trends.)

TRAC noted that, because of the massive backlog in federal immigration court, the asylum applicants likely arrived long before Trump took office and have been waiting years to get their day in court. An asylum denial does not automatically lead to deportation — an "individual could have qualified for some other form of relief, or was otherwise found by the immigration judge to not be deportable and was accordingly allowed to remain in the country," TRAC notes. (TRAC also mentions that only 1.4 percent of asylum applicants nationally failed to attend their hearings. Trump has repeatedly lied about this statistic and falsely claimed immigrants routinely skip court dates.)

Miami, however, for years has been known as a tough place to apply for legal asylum from an oppressive or violent regime. One local judge, Rex J. Ford, operates at the Broward Transitional Center, a privately run facility that specializes in housing "low-level," noncriminal detainees who typically have committed no crimes. Ford has routinely posted some of the highest denial rates in America. In 2009, the New York Times obtained transcripts of Ford berating a Chinese woman in his court who did not speak English. In a 2012 Miami New Times profile about his Broward detention facility, immigrant-rights groups noted that Ford's courtroom was a factory for what are known as "stipulated removals" — a process by which judges let immigrants sign away their rights to a hearing and move directly to deportation. Rights groups warn that non-English-speaking immigrants often don't know what they're signing.

"A large portion of the overall number of stipulated removals are coming from" Ford, an activist told New Times staff writer Chris Sweeney six years ago. Ford's denial rate in 2018 is still higher than 90 percent.

Florida is rapidly becoming a more dangerous place for immigrants overall. In 2017, the state saw the single largest jump in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arrests, according to federal data. In response to a series of high-profile and highly criticized ICE and U.S. Customs and Border Protection raids, rights groups issued a "travel warning" for immigrants coming to Florida.
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Jerry Iannelli is a former staff writer for Miami New Times from 2015 to March 2020. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.