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Deporter in the Court

They arrived by Beast. It was the summer of 2011, and Juan and Jose, twin brothers from Honduras, had decided to flee to the United States. Thousands of young Central Americans make the journey every year, riding the roofs of freight trains that chug north through Mexico. The train goes by many names, including the Train of Death, because of its tendency to toss people from its roof and leave them to rot in the Mexican soil. Juan and Jose called it by another nickname: La Bestia. The Beast.

They'd just turned 15. Their father had been shot to death at home after refusing to pay a "war tax" to MS-13, one of the gangs that have made Honduras' murder rate the world's highest. Now the gangs were targeting them, just as they did their brother, who'd already fled to Texas, and just as they do so many of the boys and girls who carve out real estate atop The Beast.

They rode a bus to Guatemala and crossed the Mexican border on foot, trekking for a week to Tenosique. Police were guarding the station, they say, so they waited a day and a half for their opening. It was 2 a.m. when they set out to jump the train. Jose struggled to secure his grip. A Guatemalan man pulled him up. "If it hadn't been for that man, I wouldn't be here," Jose says.

They took turns sleeping so neither fell off. A tree branch knocked a passenger between the cars and onto the tracks, his mangled body left to die. At the stop in Lecheria, near Mexico City, the boys heard that the Zetas drug cartel was known to kidnap train-hoppers, to be held for ransom or killed as a show of force. They hid out until it started chugging. While they waited, they say, the Zetas derailed one of the cars and kidnapped 50 passengers. "It's a terrible experience for a person," Jose says. "You see things that you would never imagine you would see."

Eventually they made it to Piedras Negras. They spent three days on the bank of the Rio Grande before piling into a small boat and crossing under the cover of night. They walked for hours before Border Patrol agents found and detained them. They were sent to a shelter, like most Central American kids are, then reunited with their brother in Lubbock. The order to appear in immigration court arrived soon after.

When an adult's deportation case arrives in Dallas' immigration court, it is assigned to one of five judges, whose tidy courtrooms are spread across the 10th floor of the federal courthouse downtown. But because they were juveniles, the twins' cases were treated differently.

Even as illegal immigration has fallen in recent years, the number of children arriving alone at the border has soared. Before 2012, only 6,000 or so "unaccompanied children," as the system labels them, were detained in any given year. That number has doubled every year since, and this year, experts estimate, agents will nab 50,000 or 60,000, most of whom are fleeing gang violence in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.

Recognizing this surge, the Department of Justice, which appoints and employs immigration judges, has worked to create special juvenile dockets, assigning all children's cases in each city to the same judge. It's designed to help judges tailor the proceedings for children and avoid having kids mixed with adults on busy hearing days. But in Dallas, that meant Juan's and Jose's cases landed on the desk of Dietrich Sims, easily the city's most controversial immigration judge. He rejects pleas for asylum at a higher rate than almost any in the country, sending refugee after refugee back to the war-torn homelands where they say they were persecuted. He's known for routinely ignoring the will of the government's own attorneys, especially when they opt not to pursue deportation. And even before he took on the kids' cases, he was seen by many as a courtroom bully.

Still, the boys' chances looked good. If their story checked out, they were eligible to stay, under a provision for kids whose mom or dad has been killed. So they arrived hopeful at the courthouse last August, eager to hear the judge send them back to Lubbock, where they were attending high school and plotting their lives in the States.

That hope quickly evaporated. Their cases had been scheduled back to back, at 1 and 2 p.m. Their lawyer had mistakenly told them both to arrive at 2. Jose arrived at 1:40, thinking he was 20 minutes early. He was 40 minutes late. (The boys' lawyer, Paul Zoltan, declined to comment, but he outlines his error in court pleadings.)

Sims was still there when they showed up. There presumably was time to deal with both boys. But accommodating sloppy lawyering is not a trait he is known for, even when children are involved. When the twins arrived, he promptly ordered Jose removed.

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Joe Tone
Contact: Joe Tone