Atlanta isn't the first place that comes to mind when you think about illegal immigration. It's not in a border state or a place that's historically drawn millions of immigrants, like New York City. And yet, in the past year, the city has become a major target for immigration raids.
Since January, federal immigration authorities have taken 121 family units and an additional 336 young people into custody nationwide, according to a statement from US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) given to VICE. That's partly in response to the flood of Central American migrants traveling to the United States, many of whom come here to seek asylum, often their best shot at legal immigration. Among those detained, two-thirds of the family units and one-third of the young people were picked up by the Atlanta field office for ICE, which covers Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina.
Why Atlanta? It's not one of the major destinations for Central American migrants, like New Jersey, Florida, and New York, and there are six other states with more undocumented immigrants than Georgia. Atlanta is, however, home to some of the country's toughest immigration courts.
"When I first started, the general consensus was, 'Don't take asylum cases, because they're just going to be denied.'" — Will Miller
Immigration judges in Atlanta denied 98 percent of petitions for asylum last year, according to statistics published by the Executive Office for Immigration Review, part of the Department of Justice. For comparison, the national average for asylum denial was 52 percent in 2015 and only 16 percent in immigrant-friendly jurisdictions like New York City.
If asylum applicants don't receive relief, they can face deportation and become priorities for removal—hence the immigration raids.
The trend recently led the Huffington Post to label Atlanta "one of the worst places to be an undocumented immigrant," citing accusations that immigration judges have bullied children and dismissed the claims of people claiming to be domestic abuse victims.
Will Miller, a staff attorney with Catholic Charities, which provides legal services to immigrants, told VICE the abnormally high rate of denials can have a chilling effect on lawyers who would otherwise pursue an asylum case. "I know that when I first started, the general consensus was, 'Don't take asylum cases, because they're just going to be denied, and you're just going to be wasting your client's money.'"
Miller suggested local lawyers might be hesitant to take asylum cases because they expect to be stonewalled by an immigration judge. If they do invest in an asylum case, he says, they should prepare to take it to the Board of Immigration Appeals or, if that fails, to the US Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit.
"You're going to be in for the long haul," Miller said. "It's not just going to be a matter of handling the case in downtown Atlanta immigration court. There's going to be a denial, and you're going to have to handle the appellate part as well. It's just a long, arduous process."
For asylum seekers, extended litigation can be extremely costly. While organizations like Catholic Charities offer low-cost services and some lawyers will take asylum cases pro-bono, Latrice Latin, the principal attorney of an Atlanta-area private law practice, told VICE a law firm might charge up to $6,500 for an asylum case at the trial level. With an appeal, the price tag could jump to $20,000.
Kathryn Mattingly, a spokesperson for the Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR), told VICE her office "takes seriously any claims of unjustified and significant anomalies in immigration judge decision-making," but did not specifically address the situation in Atlanta. She added that EOIR's policy does not allow judges to speak with the media.
"We'd like to see an increase of granted asylum from two percent to thirty percent. I don't know if that's aiming for the moon or aiming for the roof." — Sarah Owings
In the recent years, immigration lawyers have banded together to form pro-bono legal networks like the CARA project, which pools resources from several major nonprofit organizations and a national association of attorneys to take on cases in family detention centers in Texas.
While that exact model may not translate to Atlanta, where asylum cases are routinely denied in the courtroom, there are other improvements to be made. The city lacks some of the resources that can help take on complex asylum cases and appeals, such as immigration law clinics at local law schools.
"It is honestly shocking to me that none of the area law schools have been able to invest up until this point in an immigration clinic," said Shana Tabak, a visiting assistant professor who has been teaching asylum law at Georgia State University since last August. Such clinics, an established force in states such as New York and California, allow law students and professors to take on challenging and sometimes unpopular cases, drawing on the resources of the school.
In the meantime, Atlanta-area lawyers may also be able to improve the success rate by looking beyond the trial level and focusing on appeals. For victories at the initial trial level, they're fighting for better oversight or even a different set of judges. "A real target that we talked about was over the course of two years, we'd like to see an increase of granted asylum from two percent to thirty percent," said Sarah Owings, a leading member of the local chapter of the the American Immigration Lawyers Association, in an interview with VICE. "I don't know if that's aiming for the moon, I don't know if that's aiming for the roof. I'm not sure yet."
Eunice Cho, a staff attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center, believes some attorneys are ignoring viable asylum claims because they're resigned to the idea that those claim won't be approved. Cho helped compile a detailed report on the January immigration raids and has closely followed asylum cases in the region.
"I saw a woman who had documentation of domestic violence from the Honduran government, which almost never happens," Cho told VICE. "That is a slam-dunk asylum case."
But when Cho reviewed the woman's court files and documents from her attorney, she was surprised by the legal strategy. "It became very clear that her attorney never even considered filing for asylum."
In interviews with more than a half dozen immigration lawyers in Atlanta and nationally, the consensus seems to be that both local lawyers and judges would benefit from further education in asylum law. Understanding the root causes of violence in countries such as Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala is also vital, since those root causes could help decide eligibility for an asylum claim.
Tabak, who has practiced immigration law in Baltimore and Arlington, told VICE that "it's a radically different experience" to handle cases in Atlanta. Elsewhere, she said an attorney can expect that with good preparation and a meritorious case, the judge will grant relief.
"Yet here in Atlanta," she said, "attorneys don't seem to have that feeling when they go into a courtroom."
Follow Ted Hesson on Twitter.