Hermelindo Che Coc learned his son was coming home and immediately began to prepare for his arrival.
Nearly two months had passed since he’d seen his 6-year-old boy after they were separated at the border while traveling from Guatemala to seek asylum.
On Saturday, the father mopped floors and washed bed sheets at the home in the L.A. area where he was staying. He cooked a big pot of chicken soup, his son’s favorite.
“I want him to walk in here and know he’s home,” Che Coc said. “I’m his papa and we’ll always be together.”
Their reunification at Los Angeles International Airport later that evening would be among the first in California, as the Trump administration tries to meet a court deadline and reunite nearly 3,000 children it separated from their families in a zero-tolerance immigration policy. Many of the children and parents are Central American and are expected to eventually make their way to L.A.
Left, Hermelindo Che Coc cries as he reunites with his 6-yr-old son, Jefferson Che Pop, at LAX. Right, Hermelindo Che Coc carries his 6-year-old son, Jefferson Che Pop home, after reuniting with him at LAX. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
At home, time seemed to drag as Che Coc waited for his ride to the airport. He went over in his mind the first words he would say to his son. “Welcome, my boy.” “You’re with me again.” He bought him a blue Spider-Man blanket, a couple of shirts and shorts, and some sandals with bright yellow happy faces.
But no amount of planning could have prepared him for the empty gaze he’d find in his son’s eyes as he swept the boy into his arms.
Jefferson Che Pop, a playful boy who loved racing tiny cars across the dirt floor of his Guatemala home, stood stiff, staring vacantly at the gray carpet, then at his father.
Jefferson had been held in a detention shelter called Cayuga Centers in New York. He had spoken to Che Coc three times in 46 days.
The boy and his father had come north to seek asylum, fleeing crime in Guatemala. They’d left behind the boy’s mother and two younger siblings. On May 28, the two were detained near El Paso and separated the following day.
For 25 days, Che Coc was detained without any news about his son. He was given a phone number to call, but the calls wouldn’t go through.
When he was released with an ankle monitor and finally spoke to his boy using a relative’s phone in Los Angeles, the conversation was unbearable.
“Papa, I thought they killed you,” Jefferson told his father, crying. “You separated from me. You don’t love me anymore?”
“No, my son,” Che Coc told him. “I’m crying for you. I promise, soon you will be with me.”
Che Coc was not sure what changes he might see in his son.
Two caseworkers from New York named Nancy and Guario told him Jefferson was in school and that he was cared for.
This is not how I gave them my son. My son has come back to me sick.”
Hermelindo Che Coc
But that brought the father little comfort. He worried because his boy mostly speaks Mayan Q'eqchi'.
The last time Che Coc spoke to Jefferson via video there was a prominent bruise on his son’s forehead. The boy cried and said he fell off the bed.
On Saturday, Che Coc sat at his father-in-law’s dining table, inside a tiny house located behind a business. Just outside, on an open slab of pavement rented out by a neighbor for parties, a surreal scene unfolded: a baptism with dozens of linen-covered tables, an open bar and live band.
Cumbia music rattled the kitchen window as Che Coc reflected on his trip north.
Back in his village of La Ceibita in rural northern Guatemala, Che Coc never imagined an outcome like this. He knew a man named Donald Trump was named U.S. president, but without internet or access to news, he didn’t know how much the new leader had affected immigration policy.
And Che Coc had to worry about the dangers of everyday life.
“People would get killed for no reason as they were going about their day,” Che Coc said.
Che Coc and his first-born son were close. They would play soccer, marking goalie posts with sticks. On Sundays, he dressed Jefferson in his best clothes: plaid cowboy shirt, leather belt and snakeskin boots. They’d go to Mass, then stop by the village store for some sugary pan dulce.
“He’s the love of my life, my hero,” Che Coc said. “We were so attached I couldn’t imagine leaving him behind.”
Now he sometimes wonders if he should have.
“He’s suffered so much, and I’ve suffered, too,” he said.
As he drove to LAX with one of his attorneys, the downtown skyline appeared over the 10 Freeway. Che Coc gazed out the passenger window in awe.
“Is the beach nearby?” he asked. “ What’s it look like? Are there houses there?”
Looking forward, the best Che Coc hoped for was a permit to work and a chance to enroll Jefferson in school so he could make friends and learn English.
Once they got to the airport, Che Coc couldn’t contain his emotions. He bowed his head and cried. He prayed. He set a timer on his phone and watched the seconds tick by. He saw a framed photo of a Delta aircraft and wondered if his son’s plane was that big.
Just after 9 p.m., a crew member announced Jefferson was coming down the escalator.
Clockwise from top left, Hermelindo Che Coc falls asleep watching television with his 6-year-old son Jefferson Che Pop after they arrived home from LAX. Che Coc packs away newly bought clothes for his 6-yr-old son, Jefferson Che Pop. Jefferson Che Pop is greeted by his grandfather after he was brought home. Che Coc arranges newly bought clothing for his 6-yr-old son, Jefferson Che Pop, in the Los Angeles area. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
Che Coc waited at the end of a long corridor near the ticket counter. Within seconds, his little boy appeared in a red shirt and ripped jeans. He was walking fast, then suddenly he stopped, several feet from his father. He stared sheepishly at the floor.
When he looked up, his eyes were vacant, lost. He didn’t reach for Che Coc, didn’t lift his little arms to hug him.
“Papa,” Che Coc cried. “Papa.”
He lifted his son into his arms and took him to a lounge set aside by the airline for the reunion. There, on a leather sofa, Che Coc kissed his son and held him tight. The boy remained stiff and expressionless.
His arms, stomach and back were covered in a rash. His right eye was bruised red. He had a cough and a runny nose. He was much thinner than he was two months ago.
Che Coc was shaken. He unbuttoned Jefferson’s shirt, inspected him all over and rubbed and scraped his son’s dry, discolored arms, as if his fingers could wipe his skin clean.
“This is not how I gave them my son,” he said, crying. “My son has come back to me sick.”
They were together, but their legal odyssey was far from over.
Lawyers in Los Angeles had stepped in to help Che Coc last week after they learned he might be deported without his son. They are still trying to piece together the details of the 31-year-old’s case.
He said he signed a series of forms while in detention. He’s not sure what those documents said because they were in English.
Officials with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services would not comment on Che Coc or his son.
His attorneys with Immigrant Defenders Law Center said illegal entry charges brought against Che Coc were dismissed. Now they plan to fight for asylum — a protection granted by international law — for the father and son
“These families are in for the fight of their lives, as are their lawyers,” said Lindsay Toczylowski, executive director of Immigrant Defenders.
But late Saturday night, the legal battles ahead were far from Che Coc’s mind.
He searched for a way to connect with his boy as they headed to their temporary home.
He showed Jefferson a photo on his cellphone. It was of the boy, back in Guatemala — hands on his hips, smiling a big, crooked grin in his Sunday best. A bag stacked with pan dulce sat on the floor in the background.
The child’s face glowed when he saw the picture. He stared at it for a while.
Moments later in the car, Jefferson’s mom, Margarita, called from La Ceibita.
She asked him in Q'eqchi': “How are you, my love?”
“Happy to be with Papa,” Jefferson said, nodding off in his booster seat.
Much of the ride home, he dozed in and out, his body jerking unexpectedly in his sleep every few minutes.
“What’s wrong, mi niño?” Che Coc said, rubbing his son’s forehead. “I’m here. I’m here.”