On the day the government rushed to reunite dozens of families separated at the border, one immigrant father showed up to a federal appointment downtown fearful that he would be deported without his 6-year-old son.
Hermelindo Che Coc came from Guatemala in late May to seek asylum with his son, Jefferson Che Pop, his attorneys said. His son was taken from him with little explanation, he said, and sent to a shelter in New York.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials asked Che Coc on Tuesday morning to appear before an officer as part of his removal process.
But officials promptly dismissed him because they could not locate his file, said Lindsay Toczylowski, executive director with Immigrant Defenders Law Center.
He left the court free for now but still no closer to being united with his son. His case underscores the confusion and heartbreak that has marked the Trump administration’s efforts to reunite families this week. While some children were placed with parents Tuesday, many more families remain separated, not knowing when they would see one another again.
“I can’t sleep. All night, every morning I pray. I ask God that he will soon return my son,” Che Coc said. “I came with him. I carried him in my arms. I ask God to put him back in my arms as soon as possible. Without him I can’t be happy.”
Toczylowski said her client’s missing file was “further evidence of the chaos that’s come from these border separations.”
“Now we’re going to do everything we can to reunite this father with his son as soon as possible,” she said.
Officials with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services would not comment on Che Coc or his son. They issued a statement:
“HHS is continuing to work overtime to connect minors with verified parents within the current time constraints required by the court. Due to the safety and security of the unaccompanied alien children in our care, we cannot discuss the identities of any minor children.”
The Trump administration was under court order to reunite children younger than 5 by Tuesday. An additional 2,000 to 3,000 children must be reunited by a July 26 deadline.
Officials this week said they would be able to meet the judge’s first deadline only partially, returning about half the 102 young children to parents.
Those families have spent weeks apart in far-flung detention centers and shelters nationwide. They have had limited phone contact with one another and the outside world. Lawyers also said some separated parents have been pressured into agreeing to deportation in order to reunite with their children.
On Monday, Justice Department attorney Sarah Fabian said reunited families will be released together on immigration parole into the community. They will then be able to pursue their immigration cases or asylum claims as a unit.
Some parents were not eligible to rejoin their children because they have criminal backgrounds or were found to not be the child’s parent.
An additional 12 parents were deported from the United States without their children.
Outside the federal building Tuesday, Che Coc choked back tears as he spoke about his son, Jefferson. He couldn’t imagine leaving the United States without him.
Attorneys representing the 31-year-old are still piecing together what took place after he and his son were detained at the border.
He left his wife and two younger children in San Andres, Peten, because of danger and crime that permeates everyday life in Guatemala.
He was detained by U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents near El Paso on May 28. The following day his son was taken from him.
“They told me the law that allows you to enter with children didn’t exist anymore,” he said, referring to asylum. “They took me to jail and I wasn’t sure what the motive was.”
He also said he signed a series of documents, though he was not sure what those documents said because they were in English.
Toczylowski believes Che Coc may have unknowingly signed an expedited removal, triggering his deportation before he could apply for asylum, a protection granted by international law. Illegal entry charges brought against Che Coc were dismissed.
“Unfortunately, Hermelindo was denied his due process rights when he was in Texas,” she said. “We believe he was not given a credible fear interview and did not see a judge.”
He’s now scheduled to appear before an ICE officer in October.
Due to the limited space at detention facilities in Texas, Che Coc was released with an ankle monitor.
He said those days in detention were wrenching. For 25 days, he had no news about his son. He was given a phone number to call, but the calls wouldn’t go through.
He finally connected with Jefferson once he reached Los Angeles by bus in late June.
He learned his son was in New York City at Cayuga Centers, an agency that has housed several hundred kids separated from parents in foster care.
That first phone call quickly went from joyful to 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.”
Each day since, Che Coc waits anxiously to hear from two caseworkers, a woman and a man he knows simply as Nancy and Guario.
They tell him that Jefferson is in school, that he’s clothed, fed and cared for.
This brings the father little comfort. He worries he won’t be with his boy for his birthday, which is next Friday. He also worries his son may feel even more isolated than other children because he mostly speaks Mayan Q'eqchi'.
The last time Che Coc spoke to Jefferson, about a week ago, he saw his son’s face via video. There was a prominent bruise on his forehead.
“I fell off the bed,” the boy said, crying.
“It’s OK, this happens sometimes,” Che Coc told him, struggling to find the right words.
He wanted to comfort his son, to tell him that he was going to heal and be OK, but the reception was bad.