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Federal judge releases immigrant mom whose arrest in front of 3 daughters went viral

"It was really awful, not having my mom with us, waking up and realizing she’s still not there."

A judge released Perla Morales Luna, an immigrant from Mexico,  whose arrest by federal agents was captured in two separate viral videos. Here, her daughters run to embrace her after she was released on her own recognizance. (Photo: Screengrab)
A judge released Perla Morales Luna, an immigrant from Mexico, whose arrest by federal agents was captured in two separate viral videos. Here, her daughters run to embrace her after she was released on her own recognizance. (Photo: Screengrab)

On Tuesday night, a federal judge released an immigrant mom who was dragged away from her daughters by federal immigration agents in Southern California.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents seized Perla Morales Luna, 36, in early March outside her apartment complex as she walked with her three daughters to pay rent in National City. In two widely-shared viral videos, one of which came from a teacher of one of the children, at least four agents could be seen grabbing Morales Luna into a CBP vehicle as her children screamed in agony. The daughters could be heard crying and shouting “mom” as she was put inside the vehicle. Her daughters are between the ages of 12 and 17.

CBP said at the time that Morales Luna was in the country illegally and claimed that she was suspected of “recruiting drivers for a transnational smuggling organization in East County,” the San Diego Tribune reported. They alleged that the single mother of three U.S. citizen children recruited drivers to drive immigrants to a “stash house” in National City. A CBP official also said she had voluntarily returned to Mexico three times previously, once in 1997 and twice in 2004.

During the bond hearing, immigration Judge Zsa Zsa Depaolo determined that Morales Luna was not a flight risk nor a danger to society and called for her release from the Otay Mesa Detention Center where she’s been held. Morales Luna’s case will next be sent to a U.S. court in San Diego. Depaolo “warned her she could be arrested again if she did not make her court appearances,” KCRA, the local NBC affiliate reported.

The ICE attorney said that another person charged in a smuggling case earlier this year had named Morales Luna as a person involved. Her lawyer said the two women worked as cleaners about five years ago and denied her involvement.

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“What I do know, if there was any reason to think you were involved in transporting people illegally, I’m pretty sure that would never happen again because now you understand how serious it is,” Depaolo said. The judge released Morales Luna on her own recognizance without paying a bail bond.

The attorney for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the agency tasked with detention and deportation, acknowledged that Morales Luna wasn’t a flight risk on account of her U.S. citizen children but was concerned over claims of Morales Luna’s alleged ties to “her participation in an active smuggling scheme,” according to the San Diego Tribune.

Outside the detention center, Morales Luna’s daughter Yessica Estrada told the San Diego Tribune that life had been difficult without her mother.

“It was really awful, not having my mom with us, waking up and realizing she’s still not there,” Estrada said. “I just want to hug her.”

Her sister had been one of the people filming their mom’s arrest.

“I feel we did a good thing by showing the people the mistreatment that went on,” Estrada said.

Morales Luna’s release appears to be good news for pro-immigrant advocates, particularly because she went before a tough immigration judge with a history of denying more asylum decisions than accepting them. Her release also follows another piece of good news from Massachusetts in which an immigration judge ordered an immigrant dad to be released and given the chance to apply for his green card.

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The nature of Morales Luna’s arrest has become increasingly familiar at a time when the Trump administration has broadly conflated the opioid crisis with drug traffickers, smugglers, and undocumented immigrants. Trump has also given greater freedom to federal immigration agents to pursue undocumented immigrants for immigration violations. Under the Obama administration, agents were asked to exercise prosecutorial discretion in allocating resources to prioritize the detention of serious criminals over immigrants with U.S.-citizen children and longstanding ties to their communities.