Refugee roulette refers to arbitrariness in the process of refugee status determinations or, as it is called in the United States, asylum adjudication. Recent research suggests that at least in the United States and Canada, the outcome of asylum determinations largely depends upon the identity of the particular adjudicator to whom an application is randomly assigned, and that the resulting disparities in rates of granting asylum are problematic. On the other hand, some commentators state that a good deal of disparity is inevitable and that refugees and their advocates must “learn to live” with “unequal justice.” Others report that the amount of disparity diminished after 2008.
The original study that coined the term "refugee roulette" presents an empirical analysis of decision-making at all four levels of the asylum process, namely the asylum office of the Department of Homeland Security, the immigration courts of the Department of Justice, the Board of Immigration Appeals, and the United States Courts of Appeals, between 2000 and 2004. The authors argue that their findings reveal an unacceptable level of disparities in grant rates, noting that the asylum adjudicators studied heard large numbers of cases from the same country in the same location over the same period of time. The study concludes with recommendations for reforming the immigration adjudication system. In a 2008 study of immigration court decision-making between 1994 and 2007, the United States Government Accountability Office found that "the likelihood of being granted asylum varied considerably across and within the [immigration courts studied]."
The findings of the original "Refugee Roulette" study were reported as the lead story on the front page of the New York Times on May 31, 2007. The study was also reported in the Atlantic Monthly and many other media outlets, including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Christian Science Monitor, the Dallas Morning News, and the Miami Herald. The study has been cited by numerous prominent legal academics, including Prof. David Cole of the Georgetown University Law Center, Prof. Judith Resnik of the Yale Law School, and Prof. Cass Sunstein of the Harvard Law School. It was also discussed in a decision of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. The study has been cited by the American Bar Association’s Commission on Immigration and the Appleseed Foundation, among other organizations. A similar study of the Canadian asylum adjudication system was subsequently published.
The term “refugee roulette” continues to be used by the popular media to describe arbitrariness in asylum adjudication.
- Jaya Ramji-Nogales, Andrew I. Schoenholtz, and Philip G. Schrag, Refugee Roulette: Disparities in Asylum Adjudication, 60 Stan. L. Rev. 295 (2007); Government Accountability Office, U.S. Asylum System: Significant Variation Existed in Asylum Outcomes across Immigration Courts and Judges (2008); Charlie Savage, Vetted judges more likely to reject asylum bids, N.Y. Times (Aug. 23, 2009); Jaya Ramji-Nogales, Andrew I. Schoenholtz, and Philip G. Schrag, Refugee Roulette: Disparities in Asylum Adjudication and Proposals for Reform (NYU Press 2009).
- Stephen Legomsky, Learning to Live with Unequal Justice: Asylum and the Limits to Consistency, 60 Stan. L. Rev. 413(2007).
- Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, Latest Data from Immigration Courts Show Decline in Disparity (2009).
- Jaya Ramji-Nogales, Andrew I. Schoenholtz, and Philip G. Schrag, Refugee Roulette: Disparities in Asylum Adjudication, 60 Stan. L. Rev. 295 (2007); Jaya Ramji-Nogales, Andrew I. Schoenholtz, and Philip G. Schrag, Refugee Roulette: Disparities in Asylum Adjudication and Proposals for Reform (NYU Press 2009).
- Government Accountability Office, U.S. Asylum System: Significant Variation Existed in Asylum Outcomes across Immigration Courts and Judges (2008)
- Julia Preston, Big Disparities in Judging of Asylum Cases, N.Y. Times (May 31, 2007); see also Charlie Savage, Vetted judges more likely to reject asylum bids, N.Y. Times (Aug. 23, 2009)
- Random Justice, Atlantic Monthly (Oct. 2007)
- Anna Varela, Asylum a tough sell in Atlanta, Atlanta Journal-Constitution (July 29, 2007)
- Bill Frogameni, For asylum seekers, a fickle system, Christian Science Monitor (July 3, 2007)
- Todd Robberson, Asylum seekers are at mercy of inconsistent courts, study says, Dallas Morning News (June 1, 2007)
- Lesley Clark, Miami judges less likely to grant asylum, Miami Herald (May 31, 2007)
- David Cole, Out of the Shadows: Preventive Detention, Suspected Terrorists, and War, 97 Cal. L. Rev. 693 (2009)
- Judith Resnik, Detention, the War on Terror, and the Federal Courts, 110 Colum. L. Rev. 579 (2010)
- Thomas J. Miles & Cass R. Sunstein, The Real World of Arbitrariness Review, 75 U. Chi. L. Rev. 831 (2008)
- Zuh v. Mukasey, 547 F.3d 504, 513 (4th Cir. 2008)
- American Bar Association Commission on Immigration, Reforming the Immigration System: Proposals to Promote Independence, Fairness, Efficiency, and Professionalism in the Adjudication of Removal Cases (2010)
- Appleseed, Assembly Line Injustice: Blueprint to Reform America's Immigration Courts (2009)
- Human Rights First, Locked Up Far Away: The Transfer of Immigrants to Remote Detention Centers in the United States (2009)
- Sean Rehaag, Troubling Patterns in Canadian Refugee Adjudication, 39 Ottawa L. Rev. 335 (2008)
- Lauren Gelfond Feldinger, Helping Israel avoid ‘refugee roulette’, Jerusalem Post (Nov. 24, 2009); David McKie, Fluctuations in refugee rulings trouble critics, Canadian Broadcasting Centre News (Dec. 17, 2009); Andrea Saenz, U.S. funds immigration cops, but not courts, Harvard Law Record (March 11, 2010)