David Mayhan once heard asylum cases described as “murder cases in traffic court.” The proceedings have characteristics akin to low-level cases — they aren’t heard by a jury; and on top of that, federal rules of evidence don’t apply — but the stakes are high for the people seeking asylum because of the dangerous circumstances they’ve fled in their home country.
“You have, hanging in the balance, someone’s life,” Mayhan said. “It’s like a murder case.”
Asylum cases are inherently difficult for applicants to succeed in. Even when an asylum seeker has a lawyer representing them, the chance of winning tends to be less than 50%. Mayhan compared trying to win an asylum case to “trying to fit a square peg in a round hole” if the person is seeking asylum for reasons other than political persecution because there’s a specific set of categories of persecution a person has to fit in to qualify: Persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political beliefs or belonging to a specific “social group.” Mayhan said fleeing economic circumstances or rampant crime, such as gang violence don’t qualify.
Mayhan is a litigator for Butler Snow, but tougher and more rewarding than any case with millions of dollars at stake are his pro bono asylum cases, he said. In August 2019 he won a case in New Orleans immigration court for a Honduran woman, who fled an abusive partner, and her teenage son. The judge’s order granting asylum to Dunia Alonso-Sanchez describes the abuse
Mayhan’s client suffered at the hands of Alonso-Sanchez’ former partner, including beatings, threats with weapons and rape.
He said she wasn’t aware of how low the success rates for asylum cases tends to be, and while the team at Butler Snow didn’t give her unrealistic expectations, Mayhan said the
high likelihood of death migrants from Honduras face if they are deported back because of the country’s danger weighed on his mind while he worked on Alonso-Sanchez’ case.