Garcia appealed his clients’ case to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, but the three judges ruled unanimously in May 2019 that the family separations had not deprived his clients of a fair trial. He contacted attorneys in California and offered his help if a case were ever to come up in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which might be more sympathetic to immigrants than the 5th Circuit. If he had to, he would take his cause all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

But first he would need the blessing of the parents. Relatives of the deportees, including Ms. Zavala’s daughter, told Garcia that they didn’t want to risk going any further with the case, which might anger the Trump administration and cause ICE to target their families. “Let it go,” the brother of one of his clients told him over the phone. “Otherwise, all of the sacrifice will have been for nothing.”

Stymied at home, Garcia began to think about searching for his former clients in El Salvador and Honduras. Jayne asked him what he hoped to accomplish by finding them. “I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe I’m going to apologize. Because I promised them that I would help them, and I couldn’t.”

He would go to Central America not as Sergio Garcia, the public defender, but as a fellow human being seeking absolution. But as Garcia made plans, tracking down the whereabouts of the parents, the pandemic hit. He spent days going through old records and speaking with relatives in the U.S. until he tracked down a phone number for Ms. Zavala in her small town in Honduras. He had never had a chance to look her in the eye and apologize for failing her. He hoped she wouldn’t resent him or think he had lied to her. It took him days to gather the courage to finally dial her.

Ms. Zavala relied on a neighbor’s phone, since she couldn’t afford one of her own. At first the neighbor seemed suspicious of Garcia, making excuses for why Ms. Zavala couldn’t come to the phone. But after several tries, she finally answered.

“Do you remember me?” he asked, tentatively.

“Claro, abogado,” she said.

“Do you have any news of your grandson?”

“I speak with him on the phone every week. He is with my daughter in New York,” she said. “Sometimes he cries and says, ‘Mamí, when will I see you again?’ I try not to cry. I remind him that God is with us.”

“And how are you?” he asked.

“I live all alone,” she said. “Sometimes I get depressed.”

“What happened to you made me very sad,” Garcia said. “It broke my heart.”

“Me too,” she said.

“I’m sorry I couldn’t accomplish what I had promised you,” Garcia said.

“I know you tried everything you could,” she said, consoling him. “We appreciate what you did for us.”

“I haven’t forgotten about you,” Garcia said. “I won’t forget.”