Against a backdrop of filing cabinets filled with immigration cases, lawyer Elizabeth Matherne poses for a portrait at her office in Cumming, Ga. (Kevin D. Liles for the Washington Post)

Elizabeth Matherne had been practicing immigration law for four years in the far northern suburbs of this city when a new group of people came pleading for help. A flood of Central American newcomers fleeing violence in their home countries were resettling in Atlanta, applying for asylum and jamming the six phone lines at her office. She’d never seen such demand for her services.

But Matherne only felt rattled. Atlanta was fast becoming America’s toughest immigration court, she told the callers, a place where asylum applicants had “lotto number” odds. And that left Matherne with a brutal choice: She could either accept money from cash-strapped clients likely to end up with only debt and deportation orders, or she could stop and risk sabotaging her business — and her cause.

“A crisis of conscience,” she called it.

This was the curse of being an immigration lawyer in America’s least-forgiving place for new arrivals seeking asylum. Just as the massive flow of Central Americans into the U.S. immigration system was making Matherne’s job more urgent, it was also making it increasingly impossible to do.

Across the nation, new migrants from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras were showing up in federal courts designed to hear immigration cases, telling stories about dire and sometimes life-threatening gang violence in their countries. But they did not easily meet the traditional standards for asylum, which is reserved for persecuted peoples. Lawyers working in immigration courts around the country said in interviews that the ambiguity surrounding these cases has opened the door for a more arbitrary version of immigration justice.

Although the immigration court system has long faced differences across its 58 venues — reflecting the backgrounds of immigrants seeking reprieve, the availability of lawyers to help and the views of local judges — the Central American surge has made those variations more stark. Over the past five years, the asylum grant rate — at 48 percent nationally, according to government data — has risen in New York from 76 percent to 84 percent, reflecting a more generous attitude toward not just Central Americans but also other immigrants.

In Atlanta, however, it has fallen from 23 percent to 2 percent.

As a result, in the South’s largest city, Central Americans are running into a near-impermeable legal wall.

Before the surge of Central Americans began in 2014, immigration lawyers could choose from a range of cases. But in cities such as Atlanta, they are increasingly forced to take on Central American clients or none at all. That is because the newly arriving men, women and children have been moved to the front of the line by the Obama administration. Central Americans now account for almost half of immigration cases, up from a quarter in 2012. Many other cases have been pushed to 2019.

The Central American surge is changing the profile of border crossings. A decade ago, nearly 9 in 10 people apprehended at the border were Mexican. Today, although the overall number of ­border-crossers has declined, 40 percent are from the three most violent countries in Central America.

Cases are typically heard in the court closest to where the migrants resettle, and for many ­undocumented Central Americans, Atlanta is a popular destination for its job opportunities
and Spanish-speaking neighborhoods. A separate batch winds up having cases heard via video­conference in the Atlanta court while being detained in a facility in Ocilla, Ga.

For Matherne, practicing immigration law was a little rebellion against the conservative Southern culture in which she grew up. She was raised in Chamblee, Ga., and her father listened to Rush Limbaugh and talked about “illegals” taking over the country. She was pulled onto a different path, selected for a DeKalb County 1990s integration program and bused to a majority-black high school. “It just gave me an ability to put myself in other people’s shoes that most white people don’t have,” Matherne said.

Lawyer Elizabeth Matherne at her office in Cumming, Ga. (Kevin D. Liles for the Washington Post)

She came to view herself as a spunky fighter who defied conventions: pregnant at 21, married to a Marine veteran at 22, a law degree at 27. She became a public defender in Orlando at 28 and was seen by colleagues as the most empathetic in the office — every criminal with a redeeming side.

“Elizabeth always thinks she needs to save people, and when she can’t save them, it breaks her,” said Brandy Alexander, a lawyer who worked with Matherne in Orlando.

Judges ‘being so dismissive’

For years, Matherne had carved out a comfortable living by handling a variety of immigration matters — green-card applications, helping spouses stuck overseas, the occasional asylum seeker. The sign that something had changed came with the simple task of trying to spring clients, usually new arrivals held by immigration authorities, from detention.

For years, judges had granted bond without much thought, but that began to change in 2014, as Central Americans — ones that Matherne took on as clients — entered the system.

The soft-spoken Guatemalan whose land had been seized under threat. Denied.

A Salvadoran forced by gang members to perform oral sex at knifepoint, now with a scar across his face. Denied.

An anti-drug detective who defected from a unit in which other men were helping gangs. Denied.

They were men who had thought they had futures in the United States.

“You graduate law school, pass the bar; you think you’re given a key to help the world,” she said. “I genuinely believed these people could die if they’re sent back. And you’re talking to somebody” — the judge — “who is not listening.”

Though the judges did not need to justify their actions, Matherne and other lawyers had explanations for them. One was legal: Unlike for those fleeing religious persecution, for example, the precedent supporting Central American asylum was shaky, particularly for politically conservative courts in the Southeast. The other was practical: Judges were seeing so many similar cases that they were afraid to open the floodgates. Indeed, the Obama administration had grown so concerned about the influx of Central Americans that it had taken steps of its own — building new detention facilities and carrying out deportation sweeps — to deter future migrants.

Some of the disparities in asylum rates reflect differences in the makeup of those walking through the door. In 2015, Central Americans were almost four times as likely to be denied asylum than granted it. Mexicans tended to lose at an even greater clip. Eritreans and Somalis, almost always fitting the traditional profile of an asylum seeker, fared better. Chinese immigrants, often wealthy enough to have lawyers, were among the most successful, including political dissidents and women who said they faced forced abortion because of the nation’s one-child policy.

But differences among immigrants seeking asylum are only part of the reason for the national disparities, lawyers say. Lawyers in New York, Arlington, Va., and Boston — all places with generous approval rates — say they have also seen a massive surge in Central Americans seeking asylum. And they say they tend to win.

In Atlanta, the odds were never easy, but with the tough new reality, Matherne felt there was no conceivable way to reliably win. So for the first time in her career, she started pushing most clients away. She blocked out 10 to 20 hours every week for consultations. Yes, I believe you, she’d say. Your case might have merit in some parts of the country. But it probably won’t work here.

The asylum seekers did not have many other options. Only a few dozen of Atlanta’s 12,000 lawyers work in immigration. A study published last month found that having a lawyer boosted one’s chances of success in immigration court more than fivefold but that only 47 percent of migrants in Atlanta’s court had attorneys. That was lower than in any other big city.

“We just don’t have the capacity,” said Keren Sohahong-Kombet, one person on a list of lawyers that court administrators give to new arrivals.

Among the country’s 277 immigration judges — appointed by the attorney general — five work in Atlanta. Compared with those in other cities, they tend to be older. All are men. Four have served since at least the George W. Bush administration. Two are former prosecutors with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. Their reasons for rejecting most asylum claims remain unknown, and individual judges are prohibited from giving interviews. A staffer at Atlanta’s Immigration Court referred all questions to the Justice Department’s Executive Office for Immigration Review (EOIR).

An EOIR spokeswoman declined to specifically address the Atlanta situation but said in a statement that the office “takes seriously any claims of unjustified and significant anomalies in immigration judge decision-making and takes steps to evaluate disparities in immigration adjudications.”

A personal crisis

With immigration law, Matherne could stand outside a detention center after a client was released and reunited with a family. Or she could spend dozens of hours preparing a client for an asylum case and rejoice as a judge agreed with her argument. She wrote about her best cases on her résumé. The results were in capital letters: “GRANTED.”

But in the aftermath of the asylum surge, Matherne’s business turned into what she called a “house of cards.” She needed 150 new cases a year to cover her costs, including an employee. Instead, she had a growing folder of hundreds of cases marked “Consultations — Not Retained.” Her caseload shrank, her revenue collapsed, and she cut her own salary to zero.

For the first time in her life, she spiraled downward.

Her husband, a tax accountant, could support the family’s mortgage payments and groceries. But how could she justify the long hours when she wasn’t making a cent? She was either working, she said, or home and too grumpy to talk. Her youngest son was struggling to read — something for which she blamed herself because she carved out so little time for him.

She argued with her husband. She stopped quilting and painting. She saw a psychologist.

“I felt dead inside,” she said.

Most of all, she second-guessed her handling of the asylum cases. She didn’t want to “con people” or file “bulls--- asylum claims” or sustain a career on money from people who were wasting it. (Lawyers typically charge about $5,000 for an asylum case.)

But she also hated to back away.

“You perceive yourself as a fighter,” she said, “and yet how are you so unwilling to take this fight?”

Turning away

Matherne was preparing a workshop on how to represent unaccompanied minors when she concluded something ominous: The Central American surge wasn’t going away.

In the PowerPoint presentation she put together, she detailed what was happening: thousands of deportations, skyrocketing backlogs in court. Eighty-eight percent of court hearings were conducted in Spanish.

“I saw the storm clouds,” Matherne said.

And she decided that her job had deteriorated beyond repair.

“So I started ripping the Band-Aids off,” she said.

She talked with her husband. “Start over,” he said. “Simple. Do something that will make you happy.”

She started to tell callers she was no longer taking cases.

She enrolled for online classes to become a law librarian.

“Others keep going for years as zombies,” she said. “I couldn’t keep going if I didn’t think I could win.”

Matherne still shows up in court from time to time with her last clients.

But several months ago, Matherne asked the Immigration Court to remove her from an official list of lawyers who take cases. She had been on the list for six years, but when the court updated its pamphlet, the change was immediate.

Atlanta had one fewer immigration lawyer, and the phone calls stopped.