LOS ANGELES (AP) — For unaccompanied immigrant children seeking asylum in the U.S., where they apply seems to make a world of difference.
Youngsters whose applications are handled by the U.S. government's regional offices in San Francisco and Los Angeles are far more likely to win approval from asylum officers than those applying in Chicago or Houston, according to data obtained by The Associated Press under a Freedom of Information Act request.
The figures offer a snapshot of how the government is handling the huge surge over the past two years in the number of Central American children arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border unaccompanied by adults. Tens of thousands of youngsters — many of them fleeing gang violence in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras — have overflowed U.S. shelters and further clogged the nation's overwhelmed immigration courts.
Under federal law, these children can apply to remain in the country in a process that involves an interview with an asylum officer from one of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services' eight regional offices. To win their cases, they must show that they have been persecuted or are in danger of persecution.
As of January, asylum officers had rendered decisions in the cases of nearly 5,800 such children who arrived since May 2014, according to the figures obtained by the AP.
Overall, 37 percent were granted asylum, but the rate varied dramatically from 86 percent at the San Francisco office, which handles applications for a swath of the Pacific Northwest, to 15 percent in Chicago, which covers 15 states from Ohio to Idaho.
Los Angeles, which covers parts of California and Nevada, Arizona and Hawaii, granted asylum in 53 percent of its cases, while only 16 percent were approved by Houston, which handles Texas, Colorado, New Mexico and other states. The asylum offices in New York; Miami; Newark, New Jersey; and Arlington, Virginia, had approval rates in the 20s and 30s.
Immigration lawyers said they expected some differences among regional offices, given that some parts of the country are more sympathetic toward immigrants. But they said there shouldn't be such large disparities.
"The quality of justice should not be like a crapshoot. It shouldn't be a lottery," said Karen Musalo, director of the Center for Gender & Refugee Studies at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law. "It is not just disappointing — it has life-or-death consequences for these children."
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services had no explanation for the disparities. Asylum claims are evaluated on a case-by-case basis, and all children's applications get an additional review by a supervisory officer, spokeswoman Claire Nicholson said.
Several members of the House Judiciary Committee blasted the disparities. Rep. Judy Chu, D-California, called for the committee to examine reasons behind what she called the "alarming" differences and youngsters' abilities to access to lawyers in different places.
"If justice is being served, it should be served evenly across the country," said Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Illinois. "Our asylum system is failing under the weight of its caseload combined with the fact that Congress robbed it of resources for decades."
Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, said he feared the disparities might enable immigrants to exploit the country's immigration system.
Children who are turned down get a second chance to plead their cases before an immigration judge. If they fail at that stage, they can be deported. Immigration lawyers said most of those children are still awaiting decisions on their applications because it can take months or years for their cases to be heard in court. But previous studies show the courts also vary widely in how often they approve asylum.
Immigration lawyers and activists offered a variety of possible reasons for the regional differences.
Asylum officers are expected to make their decisions in line with federal court rulings on immigration, and the appeals courts on the West Coast are more liberal. Also, California has funded immigration attorneys for children since the surge, enabling these youngsters to make a stronger case for asylum, activists said. Office culture and interviewing techniques also could play a role.
"For us, it is a puzzle, and we do find it baffling," said Lisa Koop of the National Immigrant Justice Center in Chicago. "Whether it is the front-line asylum officer or their supervisors or someone higher up at the Chicago asylum office is unclear to us."
Immigration lawyers in liberal San Francisco said asylum officers there take their time and use child-friendly language during interviews to draw details out of traumatized youngsters who often are reluctant to share their pasts with strangers. Immigration attorney Pablo Lastra said these officers seem to ask questions to get at why kids should be granted asylum, not why they shouldn't.
One teen from Honduras said he was given a squishy ball to squeeze if he felt stressed during his interview in San Francisco. The officer told him to breathe deeply and take his time answering questions about how gangs came after him and his brother when their mother, a candy store owner, could no longer afford rising extortion payments, he said. While the teen was granted asylum, he asked that his name not be used for fear his relatives in Honduras could face gang retaliation.
Where unaccompanied children apply for asylum is dictated by where they live, and most of them have little or no control over that. They are placed by the U.S. government with relatives already living in this country.
"If this person has to choose between a family member in Texas and a family member in the Bay Area, we certainly would be pushing them to the Bay Area," said Manoj Govindaiah, managing attorney at RAICES, a nonprofit organization San Antonio.
In addition to asylum, many of the youngsters coming across the border have sought to stay in the country under a U.S. government program for abused and abandoned children. Since the border surge, more than 15,000 have applied for this program, and most have been approved, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services statistics.
The data obtained by the AP shows that more than 10,000 unaccompanied children who arrived in the U.S. since May 2014 have applied for asylum. More than 90 percent were Central American.
At the regional offices, girls were more likely to win their cases. As of January, asylum officers approved 43 percent of girls' and 33 percent of boys' applications.
Ann Naffier, an immigration attorney at Justice for Our Neighbors in Des Moines, Iowa, said she was surprised by the regional disparity and to see similar asylum cases could have such dramatically different results.
"It is not unfair to the kids in California, it's just unfair to our kids," she said.
Iowa gardener Alejandro Lopez — the father of one of Naffier's clients — said he knew it would be an uphill battle for his son, Jonathan, to win asylum after coming to the U.S. in 2014.
The teen took a 2½-hour trip to Omaha, Nebraska, for an interview with an asylum officer who reports to the Chicago office. A nervous Lopez answered questions for about an hour, relating how Salvadoran gang members threatened to kill him and riddled his motorbike with bullets.
Lopez, now 18, lost his bid and will make a final plea before a judge in February.
"The lawyer said it's really hard for us to win," his father said. "The only solution might be later on if you fall in love and find a wife who is American. He's still young, but that might be the only solution."
In Southern California, Jhonathan Rivas tells a different story. He said he was nervous heading to the suburban Los Angeles office for his interview, but the officer seemed relaxed as she asked him open-ended questions through an interpreter.
Over 90 minutes, Rivas recounted how gang members harassed him on his way home from church in El Salvador, pressed him to join the gang and killed his cousin and uncle. Two weeks after the interview, Rivas learned he can remain in the U.S.
"Thank God everything worked out. It made me happy I don't have to be afraid to go back to my country," said the 19-year-old, who plans to join the Army and become an airplane mechanic.
Associated Press writer Olga Rodriguez in San Francisco contributed to this report.