By Delphine Schrank
LA UNION OLANCHO, Honduras (Reuters) - Ten days after being separated from his 11-year-old son Eduardo by U.S. immigration officials, Douglas Almendarez was put on a plane back to Honduras, he says, with a promise he would be reunited with his son there.
"They told me: 'He's ahead of you'," said Almendarez, 37, speaking in the overgrown backyard of his modest soda shop several hours drive from the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa.
"It was a lie."
When he got home on June 13, he says, no one could tell him where his son was, and it took him a month to learn that Eduardo was still in the United States, in a shelter for immigrant children at a former Walmart in Brownsville, Texas.
As of Thursday, Almendarez and his wife said they still had received no word about when - or even whether - their son will be returned to them.
More than 450 immigrant parents have left the United States without their children, after being separated from them by border officials, according to a joint filing this week by the U.S. government and the American Civil Liberties Union in a San Diego lawsuit challenging the separations.
Their futures remain uncertain, even as the government scrambles to meet a court-ordered deadline of Thursday for reuniting many of the 2,500 families separated under President Donald Trump’s “zero tolerance” immigration policy.
Many of those families, like Almendarez and his son, were apprehended entering the United States illegally; others had sought asylum at U.S.-Mexico border crossings.
U.S. District Court Judge Dana Sabraw, who ordered the reunifications, said in court that once Thursday’s deadline has passed, he will examine the process for reuniting families in which the parent has been returned home.
But such reunions are likely to take time. “It’s so hard to find people after they have been deported,” said Clara Long, a researcher at Human Rights Watch who has interviewed several Honduran parents sent home without their children. “It just shows the complete lack of a plan for redress for these families.”
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) spokeswoman Adelina Pruneda declined to respond to detailed questions about Almendarez's case, including what the father was told about his son prior to boarding the plane. Pruneda did provide a statement on efforts by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which oversees ICE, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to reunify families.
"DHS and HHS are working tirelessly to reunite parents and children within the court-ordered timeline," the statement said.
HHS, which oversees the care of migrant children separated from their parents, did not respond to Reuters’ questions about the specifics of Almendarez's case.
Saying it had a backlog of media inquiries related to the family reunification deadline, HHS instead referred Reuters to its "frequently asked questions" page. On the page, the agency expresses confidence that it will successfully reunite the children in its care with their families, both “across the United States and around the world.”
'WHERE IS MY SON?’
Some details of Almendarez’s story are difficult to independently verify without government confirmation, since he has no documents pertaining to his removal from the United States or his son’s whereabouts.
Long, the Human Rights Watch researcher, said it is common for people who are quickly deported not to be provided with paperwork. “What’s more they are often told, ‘sign here,’ and they don’t know what they are signing,” she said.
Almendarez says the only official paper he brought home was a crumpled government pamphlet bearing a toll-free number he had been told to call to find out where his son was taken. He tried the number many times while in detention, he said, but never got through. In Honduras, the number would do him no good, since it does not work outside the United States.
Almendarez said he began a desperate search for his son the moment he deplaned in Honduras and realized Eduardo was not there. In his debriefing interview at the Center of Attention for Returning Migrants in San Pedro Sula he tried to explain his situation to Honduran officials.
They told him his son would be on the next flight, he said, and gave him a ticket to the local bus station, where he could arrange transportation home.
When the next flight came with no Eduardo, he began frantically calling the Belen Center in San Pedro Sula, which receives deported children, but they could provide no information about his son.
He called so many times that administrators began hanging up on him.
"I asked if they were mothers, too,” he said, “and how would they feel if they had lost their child.”
Exhausted after three days of fruitless searching, he headed home to his self-built adobe house and soda store, where he had struggled to earn a living for the last ten years, sinking deeper into debt and unable to repay a bank loan.
Eduardo's mother, Evelin Meyer, 38, had been reluctant to let the boy go to the United States, and when her husband returned alone, she had a single question for him: "Where is my son?"
THE TRAIL TO EDUARDO
On June 21, a neighbour who hosts a local news show on Facebook, Joel Mejia, invited Almendarez to tell his story for the broadcast. A Tegucigalpa-based friend called after seeing it with the name of someone in the Honduran Foreign Ministry who might be able to help.
That person, Almendarez said, provided him with a contact in the Honduran consulate in Los Angeles, and the man was able to locate Eduardo at the Texas shelter for migrant boys, Casa Padre. The consulate did not respond to requests for comment.
About two weeks after Almendarez returned to Honduras, Meyer’s cell phone rang. It was Eduardo, calling from the shelter.
Her son said he couldn't sleep, Meyer said, growing teary at the memory. He felt very alone and wanted his parents.
Later, the family was able to reach their son’s case manager, and they have since talked with Eduardo from the shelter twice a week.
Casa Padre would not provide information about Eduardo, referring all inquiries to HHS. Reuters reached the person identified by Almendarez as Eduardo’s case worker at Southwest Key Progams, the private contractor that operates Casa Padre. She also declined to answer questions.
Honduran officials say they have had difficulty getting information from the U.S. government about detained Honduran children. Honduran Deputy Foreign Minister Nelly Jerez told Reuters that officials from El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico would meet on Thursday to officially request from the United States a list of names of separated Central American families, including those in which the parents were sent home without their children.
In his initial phone calls home, Eduardo was sustained by one hope, his parents said: He had heard he would be released by July 26, the day of the court-imposed deadline.
Last week, he phoned again, panicked. "A mountain" of other boys had been released, Eduardo told his mother, presumably to be reunified with their parents.
Why hadn’t he?
(Additional reporting by Kristina Cooke; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Sue Horton)