Sometimes, the two teenage brothers hear their father’s voice. They think of what he said as the trio trudged along, catching bus rides on the long and treacherous road north from El Salvador to the US border.
They would have a new life in the United States, their father said — a life that would be better once they reached family in Massachusetts.
Later, as immigration officials hurried their father away inside an Arizona detention center, he said something else. Jose Diaz Bermudez, 34, told his sons he loved them.
“I don’t know if I will see you again,” Bermudez said. “Be good.”
Jorge Diaz Savala, 17, and Cesar Diaz Savala, 15, have not seen their father since May. Like thousands of other immigrant families separated by the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy, the boys, now in Massachusetts, face a discouraging bureaucratic maze. They are desperate to reunite with their father, uncertain when that might happen, and fearful of what’s next.
The July 10 court-ordered deadline to reunite children under the age of 5 with their parents has passed with dozens deemed “ineligible” for reunification. A second deadline, to reunite more than 2,500 older children like Jorge and Cesar, is set for July 26, but advocates expect similar roadblocks and a backlog of cases.
And so for now the Savalas wait, staying in their uncle’s small, third-floor apartment in Brighton while Bermudez remains in a detention facility in El Paso, Texas.
“He obviously wants to be reunited with his children,” said Michael MacDonald, a Lynn-based lawyer who’s handling Bermudez’s case. MacDonald says he has had trouble reaching ICE about his client and says no hearing is scheduled until August. “It’s killing him.”
The saga has been no less difficult for his sons.
Their grandmother was the only one who knew of their plan to leave El Salvador early one morning before the heat of the day. She has helped her son raise Jorge and Cesar after their mother committed suicide four years ago.
They say they were forced to flee their home in the country’s San Vicente region after gangs threatened to kill the entire family. Bermudez was affiliated with ARENA, also known as Alianza Republicana Nacionalista, one of the dominant political parties in El Salvador.
While ARENA played an especially violent role during El Salvador’s civil war in the 1980s and early 1990s, the right-wing conservative party has in recent years pitted itself against the terror tactics of local gangs.
“The idea was to help the country,” Jorge said of his father’s affiliation with the party. “He wanted to try and make something new for all the people.”
Immigration attorney Stephen Born, who is representing the boys, believes their father has a strong asylum claim.
“They’re escaping persecution and threats and running for their lives,” Born said. “To save his sons, their father decided that they must come to the US.”
Authorities discovered the family lost in the desert along the Arizona border. Immigration officials made them sit on the ground and searched them before transporting them with other immigrants to a holding cell.
When they followed their father, they knew they could be caught and deported. What they didn’t realize was that the administration’s immigration policy, which currently calls for the criminal prosecution of anyone crossing the border illegally, could separate them from their father.
“What could I have done?” Jorge said, tears welling in his eyes. The teenager felt helpless — about his father, about their circumstances. “I couldn’t do anything.”
Once their father was taken away, officials drove the brothers and some other children to another facility where they were separated by age. Their home for nearly a month offered the basics: a bed, meals, classes, recreation time. The kids there, who ranged in age from 12 to 17, often cried. Jorge wanted to help; he too missed his father.
“There were many others like us,” Jorge said. “Sometimes we would talk. Many had very hard sad, stories.”
Cesar, the quieter and taller of the two brothers, said they supported each other over the weeks they spent in detention. This was their way even in El Salvador, where the landscape was lush and green and the streets were dangerous. The boys were leery whenever they left the house, careful in case gunshots rang out.
Of the two brothers, Jorge does most of the talking. A lover of science and math, he’s determined to study and learn English so he can succeed in this new country.
“I like math because two plus two is four, and that’s the same here in America, in China, no matter where you are,” he said.
In detention, Cesar drew his favorite Dragon Ball Z cartoon and signed up an art contest for prizes like churros, sodas, and colored pencils.
Before Cesar submitted his drawing, officials notified the brothers that they would soon be leaving for Boston. The news was bittersweet: Their father would remain in custody halfway across the country.
“I feel bad not being by his side,” Cesar said shyly. “I didn’t understand why they were separating us.”
The boys have three uncles, an aunt, and six cousins in Boston. Without school, the days are long, though the brothers say they like the weather and the beaches and the opportunities to spend time with their cousins. They are able to speak to their father twice a week. They sleep in bunk beds set up in the living room.
One of their uncles, Carlos Diaz, of Roxbury, said he’s trying to help the boys adapt to American culture, especially in a climate that feels increasingly anti-immigrant.
Like their father, he tells them that eventually life will be better.
“I let them know no one has a right to disrespect them or to treat them badly,” Diaz said. “And that no matter what they need we’re here for them.”
Sometimes, Jorge sits on Revere Beach, and the view of the ocean almost makes him forget. He can pretend that the long journey north went according to plan, that his father isn’t being held 2,000 miles away.
“When you’re used to talking to your dad about your problems and having that trust, it doesn’t feel the same with other relatives,” he said. “I’m happy I’m with my uncles, but it’s not the same as with my dad.”