(NATIONAL CITY, Calif.) — The U.S. Border Patrol said Friday that agents acted appropriately during the videotaped arrest of a woman who was pulled away from her anguished daughters on a street in Southern California.
The agency said 36-year-old Perla Morales Luna recruited drivers to take people who crossed the border illegally to a house in National City, near San Diego. The agency put her in deportation proceedings and is not pursuing smuggling charges.
Video of the woman being pulled from her daughters on March 3 in the San Diego suburb had drawn nearly 10 million views on Facebook by Friday afternoon. At least one person can be heard crying uncontrollably as agents forced Morales-Luna into a vehicle and drove away.
The woman’s attorney, Andres Moreno II, said agents left the daughters — 17, 15 and 12 — alone on the street. The children, all U.S. citizens, are now living with family in the San Diego area.
The Border Patrol issued a more detailed response as criticism mounted. It said Morales-Luna declined to turn herself in after being contacted by phone in the smuggling investigation, and that she tried to flee in a nearby vehicle when agents confronted her on the street.
Morales-Luna arranged for her sister to take custody of her children but not until after agents whisked her away, according to the Border Patrol.
The agency said officers faced “a barrage of insults and confrontational agitators” during the arrest.
Michael Scappechio, a spokesman, said safety concerns prompted agents to leave before letting Morales-Luna call her sister.
Morales-Luna is a single mother who came to the U.S. from Mexico when she was 15, Moreno said.
She was walking with her daughters to pay rent when agents stopped her in what the Border Patrol said was “the result of a targeted operation.”
“You can do your job without causing such a dramatic separation of family members,” Moreno said. “It’s overkill.”
Morales-Luna denies being part of a smuggling organization and “has no idea what they’re talking about,” Moreno said before the Border Patrol issued its more detailed statement.
Judith Castro-Rangel, who identifies herself as a special education aide on Facebook, posted the video on Thursday. She did not respond to an email and a receptionist at her school said she was not immediately available.
The Border Patrol transferred Morales-Luna to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody for deportation proceedings, said agency spokeswoman Lauren Mack. She referred questions about alleged smuggling activities to the Border Patrol.
Moreno said he will fight his client’s deportation.
Immigrants in the country illegally and their families have been on edge as deportation arrests have spiked more than 40 percent under President Donald Trump.
The administration has said it targets people with criminal records, but many others are getting picked up. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has said 65 percent of arrests from October to December involved criminals, compared to 82 percent during the final full three months of the Obama administration.
National City, a working-class suburb of about 60,000 people, is near the border wall prototypes that Trump plans to visit next week.
The prototypes are intended to guide future designs of the wall he pledges to build along the U.S.-Mexico border.