Immigrants lost in 'black hole' of U.S. family reunification -advocates

July 26 (Reuters) - More than 1,400 children out of over 2,500 separated at the U.S.-Mexican border as a consequence of the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" policy on illegal immigration have been reunited with their parents, the U.S. government said in a court filing on Thursday.

Government lawyers said 711 other children were not eligible for reunification with their parents by Thursday's deadline set by a federal judge in San Diego. In more than 400 of these cases, it was because the parents were no longer in the United States.

The American Civil Liberties Union, which brought the case against the government, said the data showed "dozens of separated children still have not been matched to a parent."

Immigration advocates said the government's push to meet the court's deadline to reunite families was marred by confusion and one said children had disappeared into a "black hole."

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Migrants detained near US-Mexico border
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Migrants detained near US-Mexico border
MCALLEN, TX - JUNE 12: Central American asylum seekers wait as U.S. Border Patrol agents take them into custody on June 12, 2018 near McAllen, Texas. The families were then sent to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) processing center for possible separation. U.S. border authorities are executing the Trump administration's 'zero tolerance' policy towards undocumented immigrants. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions also said that domestic and gang violence in immigrants' country of origin would no longer qualify them for political asylum status. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
MCALLEN, TX - JUNE 12: Central American asylum seekers wait as U.S. Border Patrol agents take them into custody on June 12, 2018 near McAllen, Texas. The families were then sent to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) processing center for possible separation. U.S. border authorities are executing the Trump administration's 'zero tolerance' policy towards undocumented immigrants. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions also said that domestic and gang violence in immigrants' country of origin would no longer qualify them for political asylum status. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
MCALLEN, TX - JUNE 12: Central American asylum seekers are taken into custody by U.S. Border Patrol agents on June 12, 2018 near McAllen, Texas. The families were then sent to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) processing center for possible separation. U.S. border authorities are executing the Trump administration's 'zero tolerance' policy towards undocumented immigrants. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions also said that domestic and gang violence in immigrants' country of origin would no longer qualify them for political asylum status. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
MCALLEN, TX - JUNE 12: A U.S. Border Patrol agent takes a group of Central American asylum seekers into custody on June 12, 2018 near McAllen, Texas. The immigrant families were then sent to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) processing center for possible separation. U.S. border authorities are executing the Trump administration's zero tolerance policy towards undocumented immigrants. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions also said that domestic and gang violence in immigrants' country of origin would no longer qualify them for political-asylum status. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
MCALLEN, TX - JUNE 12: A two-year-old Honduran asylum seeker cries as her mother is searched and detained near the U.S.-Mexico border on June 12, 2018 in McAllen, Texas. The asylum seekers had rafted across the Rio Grande from Mexico and were detained by U.S. Border Patrol agents before being sent to a processing center for possible separation. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is executing the Trump administration's 'zero tolerance' policy towards undocumented immigrants. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions also said that domestic and gang violence in immigrants' country of origin would no longer qualify them for political asylum status. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
MCALLEN, TX - JUNE 12: U.S. Border Patrol agents take Central American asylum seekers into custody on June 12, 2018 near McAllen, Texas. The immigrant families were then sent to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) processing center for possible separation. U.S. border authorities are executing the Trump administration's zero tolerance policy towards undocumented immigrants. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions also said that domestic and gang violence in immigrants' country of origin would no longer qualify them for political-asylum status. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
MCALLEN, TX - JUNE 12: A U.S. Border Patrol agent looks for groups of asylum seekers crossing the Rio Grande from Mexico on June 12, 2018 near McAllen, Texas. U.S. border authorities are executing the Trump administration's zero tolerance policy towards undocumented immigrants. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said that domestic and gang violence in immigrants' country of origin would no longer qualify them for political-asylum status. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
MCALLEN, TX - JUNE 12: U.S. Border Patrol agents take Central American asylum seekers into custody on June 12, 2018 near McAllen, Texas. The immigrant families were then sent to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) processing center for possible separation. U.S. border authorities are executing the Trump administration's zero tolerance policy towards undocumented immigrants. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions also said that domestic and gang violence in immigrants' country of origin would no longer qualify them for political-asylum status. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
MCALLEN, TX - JUNE 12: Central American asylum seekers wait as U.S. Border Patrol agents take groups of them into custody on June 12, 2018 near McAllen, Texas. The families were then sent to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) processing center for possible separation. U.S. border authorities are executing the Trump administration's zero tolerance policy towards undocumented immigrants. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions also said that domestic and gang violence in immigrants' country of origin would no longer qualify them for political-asylum status. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
MCALLEN, TX - JUNE 12: U.S. Border Patrol agents take a group of Central American asylum seekers into custody on June 12, 2018 near McAllen, Texas. The immigrant families were then sent to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) processing center for possible separation. U.S. border authorities are executing the Trump administration's zero tolerance policy towards undocumented immigrants. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions also said that domestic and gang violence in immigrants' country of origin would no longer qualify them for political-asylum status. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
MCALLEN, TX - JUNE 12: A Honduran mother holds her two-year-old as U.S. Border Patrol as agents review their papers near the U.S.-Mexico border on June 12, 2018 in McAllen, Texas. The asylum seekers had rafted across the Rio Grande from Mexico and were detained by U.S. Border Patrol agents before being sent to a processing center for possible separation. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is executing the Trump administration's 'zero tolerance' policy towards undocumented immigrants. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions also said that domestic and gang violence in immigrants' country of origin would no longer qualify them for political asylum status. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
MCALLEN, TX - JUNE 12: A two-year-old Honduran stands with her mother after being detained by U.S. Border Patrol agents near the U.S.-Mexico border on June 12, 2018 in McAllen, Texas. The asylum seekers had rafted across the Rio Grande from Mexico and were detained before being sent to a Border Patrol processing center for possible separation. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is executing the Trump administration's 'zero tolerance' policy towards undocumented immigrants. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions also said that domestic and gang violence in immigrants' country of origin would no longer qualify them for political asylum status. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
MCALLEN, TX - JUNE 12: A U.S. Border Patrol spotlight shines on a terrified mother and son from Honduras as they are found in the dark near the U.S.-Mexico border on June 12, 2018 in McAllen, Texas. The asylum seekers had rafted across the Rio Grande from Mexico and had become lost in the woods. They were then detained by Border Patrol agents and then sent to a processing center for possible separation. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is executing the Trump administration's 'zero tolerance' policy towards undocumented immigrants. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions also said that domestic and gang violence in immigrants' country of origin would no longer qualify them for political asylum status. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
MCALLEN, TX - JUNE 12: U.S. Border Patrol agents detain a group of Central American asylum seekers near the U.S.-Mexico border on June 12, 2018 in McAllen, Texas. The group of women and children had rafted across the Rio Grande from Mexico and were detained before being sent to a processing center for possible separation. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is executing the Trump administration's 'zero tolerance' policy towards undocumented immigrants. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions also said that domestic and gang violence in immigrants' country of origin would no longer qualify them for political asylum status. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
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Maria Odom, vice president of legal services for Kids in Need of Defense, said two children who were represented by the group were sent from New York to Texas to be reunited with their mother. When they arrived, they learned their mother had already been deported, Odom told reporters during a conference call.

Odom said her group cannot find the children, aged 9 and 14.

It was an example, she said, "of how impossible it is to track these children once they are placed in the black hole of reunification."

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Trump administration's "zero tolerance" policy toward illegal immigration led to the separation of about 2,500 children while their parents, some asylum seekers, went through a legal process.

An outcry at home and abroad forced U.S. President Donald Trump to order a halt to the separations in June. U.S. Judge Dana Sabraw in San Diego ordered the government to reunite the families and set Thursday as the deadline.

Sabraw has criticized some aspects of the process, but in recent days, he has praised government efforts. As of Monday, 900 people had received final orders of removal, and civil rights groups said they must decide if they want to return home as a family or leave their child in the United States to fight for asylum separately.

Government lawyers told a federal judge this week that 917 parents may not be eligible for prompt reunification because they have already been deported, have waived reunification, have criminal backgrounds, or are otherwise deemed unfit. The group included 463 the government said are no longer in the United States.

Rights activists said some may have been coerced or misled into returning home, believing it was the only way to see their child. Government officials have said everyone in an immigration detention center has been given notice of their rights and contact information for a lawyer.

One immigrant, Douglas Almendarez, told Reuters he believed that returning to Honduras was the only way to be reunited with his 11-year-old son.

"They told me: 'He's ahead of you'," said Almendarez, 37, in the overgrown backyard of his modest soda shop several hours drive from the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa. "It was a lie."

As he has previously stated during his time in office, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Thursday said voters backed Trump, who made his hardline immigration stance a keystone of his 2016 election campaign.

"We have a very generous legal immigration system," Sessions said at a news conference in Boston. "But the illegality must end. That’s what the American people want."

Sessions was announcing charges against 25 people involved in benefits and document fraud, including 21 who were in the country illegally.

Around the United States, pro-immigration activists protested Trump's policy, including about 100 people in McAllen, Texas, near the Mexican border.

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Immigration protest in Washington on June 28, 2018
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Immigration protest in Washington on June 28, 2018
People demonstrate in Washington, DC, on June 28, 2018, demanding an end to the separation of migrant children from their parents. - US President Donald Trump urged divided Republicans on June 27 to support an immigration overhaul, though it appears doomed to fai, after a judge dealt a new blow to his 'zero tolerance' border policy by ordering that separated families be swiftly reunited. The repeatedly-delayed vote marks the umpteenth attempt by a deadlocked Congress to legislate a broad solution to the problem of illegal immigration, against the backdrop of a bitter political fight over the separation of migrant families at the Mexican border. (Photo by Nicholas Kamm / AFP) (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 28: Protesters that marched from Freedom Plaza to the U.S. Capitol demonstrate inside the Hart Senate Office Building against family detentions and to demand the end of criminalizing efforts of asylum seekers and immigrants June 28, 2018 in Washington, DC. More than 1,000 women from 47 states took part in the march, with numerous arrests taking place during the sit-in at the Senate office building. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
People demonstrate in Washington, DC, on June 28, 2018, demanding an end to the separation of migrant children from their parents. - US President Donald Trump urged divided Republicans on June 27 to support an immigration overhaul, though it appears doomed to fai, after a judge dealt a new blow to his 'zero tolerance' border policy by ordering that separated families be swiftly reunited. The repeatedly-delayed vote marks the umpteenth attempt by a deadlocked Congress to legislate a broad solution to the problem of illegal immigration, against the backdrop of a bitter political fight over the separation of migrant families at the Mexican border. (Photo by Nicholas Kamm / AFP) (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
People demonstrate in Washington, DC, on June 28, 2018, demanding an end to the separation of migrant children from their parents. - US President Donald Trump urged divided Republicans on June 27 to support an immigration overhaul, though it appears doomed to fai, after a judge dealt a new blow to his 'zero tolerance' border policy by ordering that separated families be swiftly reunited. The repeatedly-delayed vote marks the umpteenth attempt by a deadlocked Congress to legislate a broad solution to the problem of illegal immigration, against the backdrop of a bitter political fight over the separation of migrant families at the Mexican border. (Photo by Nicholas Kamm / AFP) (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 28: Protesters that marched from Freedom Plaza to the U.S. Capitol demonstrate inside the Hart Senate Office Building against family detentions and to demand the end of criminalizing efforts of asylum seekers and immigrants June 28, 2018 in Washington, DC. More than 1,000 women from 47 states took part in the march, with numerous arrests taking place during the sit-in at the Senate office building. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
People demonstrate in Washington, DC, on June 28, 2018, demanding an end to the separation of migrant children from their parents. - US President Donald Trump urged divided Republicans on June 27 to support an immigration overhaul, though it appears doomed to fai, after a judge dealt a new blow to his 'zero tolerance' border policy by ordering that separated families be swiftly reunited. The repeatedly-delayed vote marks the umpteenth attempt by a deadlocked Congress to legislate a broad solution to the problem of illegal immigration, against the backdrop of a bitter political fight over the separation of migrant families at the Mexican border. (Photo by Nicholas Kamm / AFP) (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - JUNE 28: Hundreds of women crowd the atrium of the Hart Senate Office Building to protest Trumps immigration policy on Thursday, June 28, 2018. Capitol Police moved in to make arrests to clear the area. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
A demonstrator holds a sign that reads 'Keep Families Together' during a protest against detaining and separating immigrant families outside of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) headquarters in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, June 27, 2018. A federal judge today ordered the U.S. to reunite immigrant children who were separated from their families at border crossings and to stop detaining parents without their children, prompting a new call for Congress to pass an immigration law from the president. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
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The American Civil Liberties Union has asked the judge to suspend the deportation of reunited families for seven days to ensure that parents understand their rights and have considered their options.

If parents were coerced into leaving the country Sabraw could order they be returned to the United States to be reunited with their child, ACLU attorney Lee Gelernt told reporters on a conference call.

(Reporting by Tom Hals in Wilmington, Del.; additional reporting by Loren Elliott in McAllen, Texas, Nate Raymond in Boston and Callaghan O'Hare in San Antonio; writing by Bill Tarrant; editing by Grant McCool)

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