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.
Email the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.
He rejected Juan's asylum claim, too, but that legal hurdle would be easier to clear on appeal, especially since the government's lawyers had decided not to pursue deportation. Jose, though, had been ordered deported in absentia, as if he'd simply skipped his court date altogether. His case appeared doomed.
"I was very afraid," Jose says, recalling that day at the courthouse. "I knew I couldn't go back to Honduras."
On a cold morning in March, I met Augustin Teoudeo in the lobby of his lawyer's office in downtown Dallas, a tattered brick building that once held the Conspiracy Museum. We shook hands and made halting small talk. I asked Teoudeo what he did for a living. His voice rose, the anger clear even through his thick accent, a brand of French particular to his native Cameroon. Though he'd been living in the United States for more than a decade, he had no passport, no Social Security card, no ID, he said.
"Who will hire me?" he asked.
Teoudeo is far from a juvenile. Specks of gray sprout from his round face and short black hair, and his eyes are tinted with exhaustion. He has a wife and three kids at home in Arlington, if you can count the house of a generous friend as home. He doesn't have a car, but he hitched a ride to Dallas to discuss a different strand of Sims' record: his reluctance to grant asylum to refugees.
What motivates Sims is unclear. Through DOJ spokespeople and his union representative, he declined to comment, citing agency rules. He's not politically active, at least not publicly. Even his harshest critics won't speculate about his motives on the record. But when he was appointed to the bench in 1997 — by Attorney General Janet Reno, a Democrat — he brought his trademark rigidity with him. Especially on asylum cases.
Across the country, judges grant political asylum to about half of the refugees who apply for it, according to statistics compiled by Syracuse University. Sims is an outlier. Between 2007 and 2012, he denied 84 percent of asylum applications, a higher denial rate than all but about 30 of the 275 judges in the system. "He's a prosecutor in a robe," says one local immigration lawyer who, worried about jeopardizing future cases, spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Though his tactics vary, Sims is known especially for attacking refugees' credibility — seizing on discrepancies in testimony, no matter how minor. That's certainly what doomed Camille, who found herself in Sims' courtroom after fleeing the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2002.
Her husband, a doctor, was a founding member of Solidarity Movement for Democracy and Child Protection, a group trying to curb the country's use of child soldiers. In 1998, he stopped on his way to work to help a 12-year-old girl who was bleeding in the street, Camille testified. A 14-year-old soldier told him to leave. Her husband refused. The soldier shot him dead.
After her husband's death, Camille was threatened with death by the soldier who killed her husband, she said. She became involved with SMDC anyway, and though they met in secret, soldiers stormed the group's office and arrested her. She was jailed for a month, beaten with plastic and electrical cords and raped at least three times a week, she said.
"I was allowed to go outside the cell to cook and clean for the guards, who whenever they wanted would point their gun at you while their friend is violently raping you," Camille testified. "Some of them are younger than my kids but what can you do? You cry, you feel bad, you are hurt but before you recover they do it again."
Eventually she was injured so badly she lost consciousness. She woke up in a hospital, where a doctor told her she was pregnant. She spent 17 days there. The doctor, who happened to know her late husband, helped her secure a tourist visa to the United States, faked her death and paid off a guard to sneak her out. A soldier later showed up at her house, Camille testified, to see if she was actually dead. But by that time she'd fled. She arrived here in the summer of 2002 and applied for asylum.
Camille told the court versions of this story three times: in her application, in a written statement and in the witness box. To get past Sims, all three narratives needed to line up. They didn't. In her testimony and statement, for example, she wrote that she was arrested in 2002, but initially she mistakenly testified that she was arrested in 1998, the year her husband was killed. Her story also strayed when asked how long she was in hiding before she fled. Sims ruled her testimony not credible and ordered her deported.
Eventually, as her case dragged through appeals, Camille would marry an American and be allowed to stay. It was her only hope; her appeal didn't stand a chance. The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which finally rejected her application five years after she arrived, made that clear, even as it dismantled nearly every one of Sims' findings of incredibility.
"These inconsistencies seem peripheral to her fundamental claims ... and seem explainable by the trauma she suffered," the court wrote. "Although we might well have reached an opposite conclusion if we were to sit as the factfinder in this case, that role is not ours."
The anger in his voice, the bloodshot eyes, maybe even those specks of gray: They all gave away Augustin Teoudeo's fear that his case would meet the same fate.
Teoudeo wasn't interested in politics as a boy, he told me the day we met. But when he applied to an engineering school in Cameroon, he failed the entrance exam because of his answer to one question: "Who is your father?" His dad was a card-carrying member of the Social Democratic Front, the main opposition party to president Paul Biya's violent dictatorship.
Soon Teoudeo was too. In 1997, he helped SDF organize a boycott of upcoming elections, which were sure to be rigged. He was promptly arrested, beaten and jailed, he said. Several years later, Teoudeo was working as a poll watcher when he was arrested again. This time he spent two weeks in jail, where police beat him on the soles of his feet. "When they're beating you, they don't care about anything," he said. "They'll hurt you any way they can."
It was the next arrest that broke him. In 2003, the SDF was protesting election results when police attacked. He was jailed and beaten again on his feet, then confined to a prison cell, its floor soaked in the prisoners' own urine. When his wife, Christine, seven months pregnant at the time, tried to visit, police refused and pushed her down, they later testified. She lost the baby.
A doctor later testified that he found "black and blue marks" on her abdomen. After Teoudeo's brother bribed his jailers and sprung him, a separate doctor found "wounds on the bottom of both feet," among other ailments. They went into hiding and fled, ultimately landing in Arlington.
Things were OK for a while. Christine got a job at the airport. They got their own place and started a family, eventually having three kids. They tried to stay upbeat about their chances.
But by the day we met, his life, like his case, was in shambles. Christine's ID had expired and she'd lost her job. The government had recently denied his latest plea for work authorization. They'd moved back into a friend's house and were living off food stamps.
"The way I'm living here is like I'm in jail right now," he said. "I can't do nothing. I can't go to a store and buy a beer. ... I'm somebody with no identity now. I can't get hired somewhere. It's like a prison, but at least I cannot get killed."
Sims first rejected their application in 2005, calling Teoudeo "not credible" and citing several discrepancies in his story. In one affidavit, Teoudeo had written that he "joined" SDF in 1997. In another, he said he "began participating" that year. He provided copies of SDF membership cards, but the earliest dated was 1998. If he didn't have a card until 1998, Sims reasoned, his claim of being mistreated in 1997 was "critically undermined."
It was bizarre logic, hinging on the premise that only someone with a membership card could be identified as SDF, or that Cameroonian police would ask for ID before they started swinging. But it foiled Teoudeo's case nonetheless. In his ruling, Sims agreed that Teoudeo "was harmed in Cameroon and that such harm resulted to the level of persecution." But "he failed to prove his membership in SDF," Sims argued. Because of that, "it would be impossible for him to prove that his persecutors' motives were to persecute him on account of his membership." He ordered the couple deported.
After some lengthy legal wrangling, Sims' deportation order now awaits a ruling from the Board of Immigration Appeals, the body of DOJ lawyers that hears appeals before they reach the 5th Circuit. If that fails, Teoudeo will toss one last Hail Mary to the 5th Circuit, which demonstrated in Camille's case its reluctance to undermine a judge's findings of incredibility. If it fails there, Teoudeo, his wife and three children will board a plane for Cameroon. They won't stay there long.
"I cannot go to Cameroon," he told me, before catching his ride back to Arlington. "I can go somewhere else, at least I'm not going to die. If they send me the letter I'll go somewhere. I cannot go to Cameroon."
Early one morning in January, the wooden pews in Sims' courtroom were filled with spiky-haired teen boys, nervous relatives and young girls draped in pink. It was the morning of Sims' juvenile docket, a series of rapid-fire hearings for kids facing deportation. Out in the hall, a 2-year-old was sleeping in her mom's arms, waiting her turn.
Before Sims entered, the government's lawyer, Lynn Javier, chatted with the opposing attorney, whose case was first on the docket. His client, a teenage girl from El Salvador, was seeking something called Special Immigrant Juvenile Status. To get it, a state family court judge would have to rule, separately, that her parents had abandoned her, or that at least one had been killed.
Her lawyer planned to ask Sims for time to pursue that ruling. The government was on board, too. Yet everyone seemed unsure about whether he would agree.
"Judge Sims' concern is that the state court is handing them out like candy," Javier told the lawyer. "That's why he gets a little crazy about it."
The judge would eventually oblige. But throughout the hearing, he would flash signs of a unique disagreeableness that frustrates immigrants, their attorneys and even the Immigration and Customs Enforcement lawyers who pursue deportation.
It started with the case of a tiny Honduran girl in pink, two tight braids tracing the back of her hair. She was 10. When Sims asked her lawyer how she pleaded, Javier, the attorney for ICE, asked Sims to terminate the case.
"She is not a law enforcement priority and we don't anticipate she'll become one," Javier explained.
"If she was not an enforcement priority, the government didn't need to put her into removal," he said, clearly annoyed.
"We no longer wish to proceed," Javier responded, curtly.
"Is this because of her age? Is there a difference between someone who is 10 years old and someone who is 16 years old?"
The judge would eventually relent, but he voiced the same frustration in his next case. It involved a younger girl with a similar pink sweatshirt and a similar story. Nine. Honduras. Fled violence, arrived alone.
Again, Javier said the government didn't want to proceed. Again, Sims asked why the government detained her in the first place, though surely he knew the answer.
"The law requires us to detain her," Javier said. She added, "Prosecutorial discretion is available to us."
"There's been a change in circumstances?"
"Yes," she said. "A change in our desire to prosecute the case."
Javier was clinging hard to those words, "prosecutorial discretion." They're part of President Obama's strategy to slow deportations, which, to the chagrin of his supporters, have risen to record levels during his presidency. They're also vital to the government's efforts to unclog the immigration legal system, where the average case takes 19 months and more complicated ones take several years. Sims appears to despise the use of discretion, routinely ignoring attempts by opposing attorneys to cooperate. It drives lawyers crazy, including the government's.
"It's an adversary system," says John Wheat Gibson, an immigration lawyer and outspoken critic of Sims. "I come in and put on my case; the government comes in and, if they're opposing, they put the best spin on it they can. The judge is supposed to balance those, but he doesn't."
It predates Sims' time on the bench. He spent his early career as a lawyer for Immigration and Naturalization Services, since renamed Immigration and Customs Enforcement, in San Antonio. He stood out in his unwillingness to cooperate, according to multiple lawyers who worked with him there.
"If it's a good case and a compassionate case, a lot of them will agree to relief," says Robert Shivers, a longtime immigration lawyer there. "He was very aggressive and reluctant to try to work something out."
Sol Villasana, a Dallas civil attorney, witnessed this aggressiveness during his only case before Sims. It looked like a slam dunk: His client, Pablo Travieso-Izquierdo, had arrived from Cuba in 2008. The next year he went to the checkpoint in Laredo and was "paroled" by ICE — allowed to stay while his case was decided by the courts. He was eligible for the Cuban Adjustment Act, which offers permanent residence to certain Cuban citizens.
He hired Villasana and applied for adjustment. A few weeks later, ICE's own lawyer asked the judge to close the case. But Sims balked. He argued that Travierso-Izquierdo wasn't eligible because he wasn't paroled when he first entered the United States. He ordered him deported.
Sims' reasoning baffled Villasana. "Once you're on the land and make your way to a port of entry and get your parole, that's pretty much settled law," he says. But odder still was that the judge had ignored ICE's wishes. Villasana appealed. The Board of Immigration Appeals promptly vacated Sims' order and allowed Travierso-Izquierdo to stay.
"The judge is trying to be prosecutor and judge at the same time," Villasana says. "I haven't seen any kind of judge act that way."
As chief counsel for Dallas' ICE office, Paul Hunker is, in a way, the lead prosecutor on deportation cases that flow through that courthouse downtown. Though technically it's an administrative court, the proceedings look and feel like those of a criminal court. Hunker and his team of lawyers play the role of prosecutors, sifting through the cases presented by investigators and deciding which to pursue.
A judge prone to deporting immigrants might seem to be a boon for the system's so-called prosecutors. And ICE won't say otherwise: Hunker and an agency spokesman declined to discuss Sims, citing agency rules. But according to court records and witnesses, at least some in ICE's ranks are clearly frustrated.
In one recent case, an ICE lawyer named John Allums told Sims he wanted a case thrown out. Sims disagreed and, according to multiple people in the courtroom that day, he demanded that Allums produce a document related to the immigrant's criminal history. Allums, having already resolved to not pursue deportation, refused. After a lengthy and testy back and forth, Sims threw Allums out of the courtroom and the hearing was halted.
Hunker himself has taken on Sims, too. Recently, after a case was sent back by the appeals board, Sims ordered the immigrant to pay $1,500 in filing fees, even though he'd already paid the same fees. Hunker pleaded with Sims to reverse himself, calling the requirement "unwarranted and unsupported by law," court records show.
It's not just refugees who've inspired Hunker to clash with Sims, either. In 2012, a Mexican national named Augustin Ordaz- Villagomez arrived in Hunker's office, pleading for lenience. He'd been convicted of a drug crime at age 66 and, after serving 14 months in prison, faced immediate deportation. Ordaz had been in the States since he was 17 and was a legal permanent resident. He had no family in Mexico. He also was dying of leukemia. According to a letter from his doctor submitted to the court, he had only a few months to live.
Ordaz lived in California, but instead of being detained there he'd been sentenced to prison in Balch Springs, Texas, over the objection of the trial judge, court records show. That meant his deportation case fell to Sims. But after being released from prison, Ordaz moved back in with his family in California, so he asked for his case to be moved to California. Sims refused.
Ordaz couldn't fly — his ID had expired in prison — so his daughter rented a car and drove him 1,700 miles to Dallas. The day of his hearing, they went to see Hunker and shared their story — how Ordaz couldn't get certain treatment because of his pending deportation, how painful the trip had been. Hunker agreed to file a joint motion with Ordaz's lawyer asking Sims to dismiss the case. He then worked with local immigration officials to secure Ordaz a temporary ID so he could fly back to California. Linda Solis, Ordaz's daughter, remembers Hunker promising her, "Anything that happens, we're not going to go after your dad."
But rather than dismiss the case, as Hunker had asked, Sims "administratively closed" it. That would keep Ordaz from getting deported, but, as the government had told Sims, it also would keep him from getting treated.
Hunker appealed, pleading with the court "to allow his family ... to spend the short time they have left together free of the stress that has resulted from these proceedings."
Ordaz died that July. The board ruled three months later.
"The Board has been advised that the respondent ... is deceased," they wrote in the two-line decision ending the case. In a footnote, they added: "While we do not reach these issues on a formal sense, we nonetheless express our disagreement with the Immigration Judge's ruling."
Sims has for years been something of a cult figure among immigration lawyers in Dallas, the guy they can't stop talking about, love or hate or something else altogether. Mention his name and it's met with a chuckle or a gasp and, often, a hasty plea to go off the record.
No real consensus exists. A few lawyers seem to take pride in not fearing Sims. He's a man thirsty for intellectual warfare, they say, and if you arrive unprepared to his little battlefield downtown, he will pounce.
"If you come prepared and you're willing to punch back, you'll be fine," says Gary Frost, a Dallas immigration lawyer. "It's nothing personal."
But something closer to a consensus emerged in the last few years, when the juvenile docket fell into Sims' care. Little is known about exactly when or why or how the cases were assigned to him, and the Justice Department won't say. But when word circulated that it had, it was met, as one lawyer put it, with a "chorus of 'What the fuck?'"
Roughly half of child refugees are technically eligible to stay, depending on which experts you ask and which legal standard is applied. But when the cases arrive in court, ICE's lawyers often ask judges to close them. Even when a judge does order a kid removed, ICE sometimes agrees to wait until they're adults to deport them. And sometimes kids just ignore a deportation order altogether. Because of that, fewer than 20 percent of child refugees are actually sent back, either voluntarily or under a deportation order, according to one recent estimate.
How Sims stacks up on those kids' cases is unknown. But judging by court records, recent hearings and interviews with more than a dozen lawyers, he treats kids much like he does adults, despite a host of agencies, experts and advocates suggesting he do otherwise.
It certainly looked that way in the case of those Honduran twins. And it did with Maria, another teenager from Honduras. Just 13, she'd been raped by her neighbor and, with her aging grandma unable to protect her, fled here to join her mother. She applied for asylum, claiming, as the law requires, that she was part of a recognizable social group: Honduran girls whose families, never mind the police, can't or refuse to protect them from predators.
Judges in similar cases have recognized such groups. But Sims rejected the notion that girls like Maria were part of a distinct group. Even if they were, he wrote, she didn't prove that being part of that group motivated her rapist, calling it "likely" a crime of "convenience." He also argued that because she fled during the investigation, she "failed" to give police an opportunity to protect her.
In fact, that "convenience" is born out of Honduras' "climate of impunity" around rape, says Lisa Frydman, managing attorney for the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies at the U.C. Hastings law school. "Of course she didn't report it," Frydman says. "She was terrified."
Sims ordered Maria removed. Her attorney, Ollie Jefferson, appealed, but as the case pushed on the girl disappeared, Jefferson says. She doesn't know what happened to her.
Another boy's case didn't even get that far. A 16-year-old from Albania, he claimed he'd been threatened in his home country and abandoned by his parents, who sent him to live here with his uncle. A family court would have to determine whether he was eligible to stay. But the family court had yet to rule when the boy's hearing date arrived, says the boy's lawyer, John Wheat Gibson. Sims ordered the boy deported. Wheat Gibson appealed, calling Sims a "notorious bully."
"The pettiness of it," Wheat Gibson says. "Even the worst of them wants to be fair, even if they're not going to be fair. I don't think he gives a damn."
Then there's Sims' demeanor. Even lawyers who otherwise defend Sims acknowledge that his courtroom behavior doesn't jibe well with the presence of children. He often works to embarrass lawyers, witnesses and immigrants who make mistakes or don't know the law, they say. (Though she couldn't discuss Sims specifically, Dana Leigh Marks, President of the National Association of Immigration Judges, said judges are burned out by their famously full dockets and lack the proper authority to sanction lawyers, which could lead to more confrontations.)
"Judge Sims is not overly friendly. He is very curt," says Joe Cox, a former district court judge who's worked pro bono cases in Sims' courtroom. "I think kids who are already scared could perhaps use just a little bit more of a comforting hand: 'I know this is difficult, I know you're scared, try your best.'"
Toward the end of a long day of hearings in January, a 12-year-old boy, his hair slick with gel, found his way into Sims' courtroom. He looked nervous as he took a seat alongside his lawyer, while his mom watched, alone, from the gallery. They were hoping for good news, but instead bore witness to Sims' resistance to asylum and his thirst for rhetorical warfare.
Like the twins from Honduras, the boy had been targeted by gangs and fled. Some judges, applying what legal experts call a "child-sensitive" standard, have found that boys fleeing gangs do qualify for asylum. But the courts in recent years have made these cases more difficult, and Sims sprung on the young lawyer's alleged misstep.
"How did he have a political opinion?" he asked the boy's lawyer, incredulous. "When I was 12, I was just running around."
The lawyer was flustered and Sims appeared to eat it up. As the lawyer pressed on, the judge interrupted.
"Do the gang members have to be aware of a political opinion?" Sims asked.
The lawyer started to explain and the judge stopped him. "I'm writing this down, slow down," the judge said, sarcasm dripping.
After the hearing, the boy seemed fine. Not all do. Although any courtroom could leave a child's nerves frayed, one lawyer who works juvenile cases described watching kids cry on the way out of Sims', and attributed the tears to his intimidating demeanor.
The boy's lawyer seemed flustered but intact, but he does this for a living. Many kids' lawyers don't. That's because lawyers are expensive, often even more so in front of Sims. Several lawyers said that because they charge immigrants flat fees, they charge more for cases in his court, knowing the process will drag on. (The price of an asylum case might jump from $5,500 to $7,500, one lawyer estimated).
Whether they can't afford or can't find a lawyer, many kids go it alone, experts say. On one recent hearing day, a handful of kids, including a 6-year-old boy and that 2-year-old girl, appeared without lawyers. Others rely on pro bono lawyers, attorneys who work for free because they want courtroom experience or to give back. Understandably, they often arrive less prepared than seasoned immigration attorneys.
Tricia DeLeon did. She's a bankruptcy lawyer and the pro bono coordinator at her Dallas firm, charged with finding associates to take on cases for free. She recently took her first immigration case, with a Central American girl who'd been abused by her family and targeted by gangs. ICE's lawyer had agreed not to pursue the case, so DeLeon figured it would be "a cakewalk." Stacy Jones, who'd asked DeLeon to take the case, expected the same.
"Usually judges are happy to get a case off the docket," says Jones, a lawyer for the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit that provides legal services to child immigrants. But Sims denied the motion. The girl was eventually allowed to stay, but not before some frantic calls to Washington by DeLeon.
"I was honestly shocked at what they were telling me," says Jones, who's heard similar stories from other lawyers. "I couldn't believe that if [our lawyers] wanted something done and ICE was agreeing to it that [he wouldn't agree to it]."
DeLeon stuck with it, continuing to take on similar cases. But she acknowledges that Sims' demeanor has made it difficult to recruit and keep pro bono lawyers. "It's hard enough to convince an attorney to volunteer when they're already busy," she says. "We're trying our very best. Give us some grace."
The day the little girls in pink saw their cases dismissed, at the insistence of ICE and over Sims' clear frustration, most of the kids got what they asked for. In fact, after that long morning of hearings, a few lawyers mentioned how smoothly their cases had gone, and a couple wondered whether the presence of two reporters played a role. A reporter from The Dallas Morning News had been in the gallery that morning too, and word had spread through the courthouse.
It spread to Washington, too. The next week, I called the courthouse. The court's administrator, once happy to provide Sims' hearing schedule, refused. She'd been ordered to forward my request to press officers at the Justice Department, she said.
Eventually the Justice Department obliged, identifying a few upcoming cases. But by the time the next hearing arrived, the news had already swept through immigration lawyers' offices across the city: Sims was off the juvenile docket. With no explanation, the Justice Department had reassigned those cases to a different judge.
Officials declined to say why, but lawyers in town have a hunch. Not long before reporters started showing up in Sims' courtroom, the American Immigration Lawyers Association, a national trade group, had filed a complaint with Sims' bosses. Then, in January, at least two private attorneys sent complaints of their own, identifying a handful of juveniles whom Sims had ordered removed over the objection of ICE.
Whatever motivated the change, it was no small undertaking. Practically overnight, hundreds of cases were moved from Sims' docket. That included, to the delight of many lawyers, cases already in progress. It included the case of Jose, the Honduran twin who was living under a deportation order after showing up late to his hearing.
After Sims ordered Jose removed, his attorney had filed a motion to reopen the case, pleading with the judge to not punish the boy for his own mistake. But before Sims got a chance to rule on it, the case was moved to a different judge. That judge promptly reopened the case. Then he terminated it.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Like his brother Juan, whose case was saved on appeal, Jose no longer faces deportation. He's a junior in high school now. He says he wants to be a doctor. His brother Juan, though: He wants to be a lawyer.
Obed Manuel contributed reporting.
The names of children and victims of sexual assault have been changed.
Read more Asylum Insanity