A young woman grasped onto Perla Morales-Luna’s arm as a Border Patrol agent and two men in plain clothes pulled her away.
“Get in the car!” one of the men yelled.
Morales-Luna’s three daughters watched from the sidewalk as the agents pushed her into the back of a U.S. Customs and Border Protection van. The daughters, who appeared to be teenagers, shrieked and sobbed as the van drove away.
“Mom!” one of the daughters screamed.
“Where is she going?” one of the daughters asked after the vehicle disappeared.
Perla Morales-Luna was arrested Saturday in National City, Calif., near San Diego, on a busy street corner about a block away from a local high school. Morales-Luna was walking with her three daughters to pay rent when two plainclothes agents approached her, asked for her name, and proceeded to tug her away, National City council member Alejandra Sotelo-Solis told NBC 7.
Immigration authorities arrested Morales-Luna, who is in the country illegally, as part of a “targeted operation,” according to a CBP statement. Officials identified her as an alleged “organizer for a transnational criminal smuggling organization operating in East County, San Diego,” the CBP statement read.
A video capturing the emotional scene circulated widely on Facebook Thursday and provoked anger from immigrant rights activists and community leaders. The aggressive way in which the agents detained the woman, in front of her children, underscores immigration authorities’ “violent” methods of taking people into custody, advocates say.
“The mother is essentially stripped from the arms of her children,” Pedro Rios, director of the American Friends Service Committee in San Diego, told The Washington Post. “If there weren’t uniformed agents, it would resemble a kidnapping.”
“To have something like this go down, in the broad daylight, it really is concerning,” Sotelo-Solis told NBC 7.
CBP officials did not respond to criticism of the way Morales-Luna was detained and did not clarify what type of smuggling she is suspected of. Morales-Luna is in Border Patrol custody awaiting transfer to Immigration and Customs Enforcement for removal proceedings, according to the CBP statement.
CBP Agent Michael J. Scappechio told NBC 7 Morales-Luna has previously been arrested, but he would not provide further details.
Rios, whose organization is working with the family, said Morales-Luna’s daughters are in the custody of an uncle. Rios did not know the ages of the daughters but said at least one of them is a minor.
The video footage provided a window into the way these arrests play out amid immigrant families, Rios said. “It probably happens on a much more regular basis than we know about.”
He criticized the abrupt way in which Morales-Luna was detained, without any regard for the children, who were “suddenly left on their own without anyone to care for them.” Her daughters, Rios said, are “probably traumatized now.”
Judith Castro-Rangel, a staff member at the school attended by one of Morales-Luna’s daughters, posted a video of the arrest to Facebook. “It breaks my heart to know that this is the mother of one of my students,” Castro-Rangel said.
“This must change,” she said. “No more separation from families!”
The controversy over the videotaped arrest comes amid the Trump administration’s efforts to ramp up deportations and crack down on immigration enforcement. The Justice Department on Tuesday escalated its fight against “sanctuary” jurisdictions that have a policy of protecting illegal immigrants and not cooperating with federal authorities to deport them. The Justice Department is suing the state of California for laws it says unconstitutionally protect undocumented immigrants.