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ICE put a 4-year-old on a plane to Guatemala. Her dad found out 30 minutes before she landed

CNN logo CNN 6 days ago By Catherine E. Shoichet, CNN
LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 14: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), agents detain an immigrant on October 14, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. ICE agents said the immigrant, a legal resident with a Green Card, was a convicted criminal and member of the Alabama Street Gang in the Canoga Park area. ICE builds deportation cases against thousands of immigrants living in the United States. Green Card holders are also vulnerable to deportation if convicted of certain crimes. The number of ICE detentions and deportations from California has dropped since the state passed the Trust Act in October 2013, which set limits on California state law enforcement cooperation with federal immigration authorities. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images) © John Moore/Getty Images North America/Getty Images LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 14: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), agents detain an immigrant on October 14, 2015 in Los Angeles, California. ICE agents said the immigrant, a legal resident with a Green Card, was a convicted criminal and member of the Alabama Street Gang in the Canoga Park area. ICE builds deportation cases against thousands of immigrants living in the United States. Green Card holders are also vulnerable to deportation if convicted of certain crimes. The number of ICE detentions and deportations from California has dropped since the state passed the Trust Act in October 2013, which set limits on California state law enforcement cooperation with federal immigration authorities. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

Six months after US officials separated them at the border, ICE put a 4-year-old girl on a plane to Guatemala this week so she could be reunited with her father.

But there was one major problem, according to advocates who worked on the case: The man didn't learn his daughter was coming until 30 minutes before her flight was set to land in Guatemala City.

He lives eight hours away -- too far to get there in time. After half a year apart from her father, the girl would have to spend another night in a shelter alone.

The case sparked fury and frustration this week from advocates working to help reunite children with deported parents. It's an example, they said, of a reunification effort that remains needlessly chaotic at times, even months after a federal judge ordered the US government to reunite the immigrant families it separated.

"After what the US government has already done to these kids, it's beyond outrageous and inhumane," said Lisa Frydman, vice president of regional policy and initiatives for the nonprofit Kids in Need of Defense, which has been working with partners in Central America to facilitate reunifications.

Attorney: Case highlights 'serious concerns'

Frydman said the case of the 4-year-old and her father, who were separatedin April, is exactly the kind of situation advocates feared for months would arise.

"This is what we've been raising and trying to prevent," she said. "This is a government-inflicted mess. This is totally and completely avoidable."

ACLU attorney Lee Gelernt pointed to the case in a hearing Tuesday, noting that advocates have "very serious concerns" about how ICE is communicating with NGOs on the ground in Central America as reunification efforts continue.

"It's both not getting any advance notice so the parents can be there to get the child, and the length of time it's taking in many of the repatriations that are being done by ICE," Gelernt said. 

In contrast, Gelernt said, flights coordinated by Health and Human Services officials have been going smoothly, with enough advance notice provided.

Asked by a judge to respond, Justice Department attorney Scott Stewart, who's representing the government, said ICE was handling a relatively small number of such cases. Sometimes, he said, operational "sensitivity concerns" limit when ICE officials can disclose flight timing information.

"We'll look at that and see if there's anything that can be done there," Stewart said.

a man standing in front of a building © Getty Images

US District Judge Dana Sabraw said HHS and ICE officials should coordinate "so that this type of situation does not occur in the future."

"We'll work to address that, your honor," Stewart said. "We take the point."

ICE spokeswoman Sarah Rodriguez declined CNN's request for comment on the 4-year-old's case and the reunification process, citing the pending litigation.

Which federal agency handles repatriation flights depends on details of individual cases, Frydman said. ICE has been handling cases that were granted "voluntary departure," a designation that lets people leave the United States without a deportation order on their records, she said.

Advocates are still struggling to track down parents

For months, officials and advocacy groups have been working to comply with Sabraw's order to reunite immigrant families the government separated. More than 1,400 were reunified by the court's July 26 deadline.

A major hurdle officials are still facing: reuniting deported parents with kids who remain in custody in the United States. 

Officials have said hundreds of parents from separated families were deported without their children.

And tracking down those deported parents has presented major logistical challenges. Even now, Gelernt said, there are 10 parents who advocates haven't been able to reach.

After making contact, advocates have to determine whether those parents want their kids to return. Some parents have made the heartbreaking choice to remain separated from their children.

According to the latest government tally, deported parents of 123 children in custody have said they don't want their children to be returned.

It's not clear how many kids have been reunited with deported parents, and how many have yet to make the journey.

The last status report provided by officials and advocates is more than 10 days old. Dated September 27, that report said 32 children had been reunified with parents in their countries of origin, and 27 more were in the pipeline. There were a total of 219 kids in government custody whose parents are no longer in the United States.

Officials have stressed that the numbers are constantly changing, and attorneys are still debating various statistics as they meet to sort out next steps in the case.

The federal judge praised attorneys Tuesday for their efforts.

"It appears we're very close to really getting things wrapped up," Sabraw said.

He's ordered them to provide another status update on reunifications Monday.

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