US Border Patrol agents detained an undocumented mother in front of her screaming children on a Southern California street last week in an arrest that was captured on video and viewed millions of times online.
The footage, posted Thursday on Facebook, shows Perla Morales-Luna being pushed into a US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) vehicle in National City, California, while her daughters cry out in protest. As of Thursday night it has received more than 7 million views.
"Don't touch me," Morales-Luna is heard saying as she is pulled into the vehicle in a second Facebook video that has since been taken down.
In one of the videos, a young woman is seen trying to pull Morales-Luna away from the Border Patrol officers. Her daughters are later seen sobbing as they watch their mother being pushed into the vehicle at an intersection. The video shows at least two Border Patrol agents in green uniform and one plainclothes officer.
"Mom!" one of her daughters screams. "Where is she going?"
Moments later after the van takes off a man approaches the girls asking if they're alone and if there's any family they can call.
In a statement, CBP said Morales-Luna was detained on Saturday because she was part of a transnational criminal smuggling organization operating in eastern San Diego County.
"She was arrested as a result of a targeted operation on March 3, 2018, in National City for being in the country illegally," said Jackie Wasiluk, a spokesperson for CBP. "She is currently in Border Patrol custody awaiting transfer to ICE for removal proceedings."
The agency would not say what criminal organization Morales-Luna was a part of in response to questions from BuzzFeed News and others online.
Andrés Moreno II, one of the attorneys who is representing Morales-Luna, said she doesn't have a criminal record and was not involved in smuggling as part of a criminal organization.
"I'm not aware of any facts that would lead to that conclusion," said Moreno of the allegations. "Our client adamantly denies she had anything to do with any of that."
In a statement released Friday after the video had gone viral US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) provided additional information about the arrest and said Morales-Luna was arrested because she recruited drivers to transport undocumented immigrants from a remote area of San Diego County to a stash house in National City. The agency said she was part of a larger transnational criminal organization but didn't say which one.
Other people had been arrested as part of the smuggling operation in January near Boulevard, California, CBP said, but Morales-Luna eluded arrest. Border Patrol agents spoke with her on the phone but she refused to self surrender, authorities said.
"During the arrest on March 3, 2018, Ms. Morales-Luna refused to comply with the agents' commands and physically resisted while attempting to abscond into a nearby vehicle," CBP said. "The video clearly shows the arresting agents carried out their duties appropriately, even when faced with a barrage of insults and confrontational agitators."
Moreno told BuzzFeed News that Morales-Luna was a single mother raising three US citizen daughters ages 17, 15, and 12. She was on her way home to pay their rent when she was approached by Border Patrol agents.
"What is going on today, in relation to the policies in place, that it makes sense to split up a single mother from her children?" Moreno told BuzzFeed News. "Do we really need to physically remove her in front of her children, throw her in a car, and speed off while her United States-born children are left on the street?"
As of Friday afternoon Morales-Luna was being held at the Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego. Moreno said he hopes to get her out on bond or parole before fighting her immigration case.
Moreno said he still hasn't seen any evidence from Border Patrol about the smuggling allegations.
Judith Castro-Rangel, who posted the two videos, said she teaches one of Morales-Luna's daughters.
"The brutalized, injustice that is happening in this country is sad," Castro-Rangel wrote in her Facebook post. "The subjects dressed as civilians detained Perla Morales at the head of her three daughters whom the Border Patrol left alone after brutally arresting their mother."
Adriana Jasso, program coordinator for the American Friends Service Committee San Diego Office, said the arrest was grotesque.
"The officers display no empathy nor humanity while this mother and her children begged for them not to separate the family," Jasso told BuzzFeed News in a statement. "This type of action by federal agencies can only be interpreted as representing the much anticipated and dangerous escalation of raids in California threatened by the Trump administration."