Judge Thomas Snow watched the middle-aged construction worker on a big-screen television in Arlington, Va., 170 miles away from the immigration jail where Chirino was being held.
In a shaky voice, Chirino described the MS-13 gang attack that had nearly killed him, his decision to testify against the assailants in a Northern Virginia courtroom and the threats that came next. His brother’s windshield, smashed. Strangers snapping their photos at a restaurant. A gang member who said they were waiting for him in Honduras.
“I’m sure they are going to kill me,” Chirino, a married father of two teenagers, told the judge.
It was 2016, the last year of the Obama administration, and Chirino was seeking special permission to remain in the United States. His fate lay with Snow, one of hundreds of administrative judges working for the U.S. Justice Department’s clogged immigration courts.
Their task has become more urgent, and more difficult, under President Trump as the number of asylum requests has soared and the administration tries to clear the backlog and close what the president calls legal loopholes.
In the process, the White House is narrowing the path to safety for migrants in an asylum system where it’s never been easy to win.
Snow believed Chirino was afraid to return to Honduras. But the judge ruled that he could not stay in the United States.
Nearly a year after he was deported, his 18-year-old daughter and 19-year-old son arrived in the Arlington immigration court for their own asylum hearing. They were accompanied by their father’s lawyer, Benjamin Osorio.
“Your honor, this is a difficult case,” Osorio told Judge John Bryant, asking to speed the process. “I represented their father, Santos Chirino Cruz. . . . I lost the case in this courtroom . . . . He was murdered in April.”
When Osorio paused, the judge blanched and stammered.
“You said their father’s case — did I understand I heard [it]?” Bryant asked, eyes wide.
“No,” Osorio said. “In this court. Not before your honor.”
“Well good, because — all right, my blood pressure can go down now,” Bryant said. “Yeah. I mean. Okay.”
The immigration courts declined a request for comment from Snow. But in an essay published in USA Today — after Chirino was deported but before he was killed — the judge said deportation cases could be heartbreaking.
“Sometimes, there is not much to go on other than the person’s own testimony,” he wrote. “Yet this is not a decision we want to get wrong. I’ve probably been fooled and granted asylum to some who didn’t deserve it. I hope and pray I have not denied asylum to some who did.”