National City mother in viral arrest video released from immigration detention

A National City woman whose arrest by Border Patrol in front of her three daughters became a viral video was released from custody Tuesday night by an immigration judge while her case is processed.

Border Patrol agents, including two in plainclothes, arrested Perla Morales-Luna on a Saturday afternoon in early March as she walked with her daughters in front of their apartment complex. Two videos of the arrest went viral several days later after a teacher of one of the daughters shared them on Facebook.

After videos surfaced, Border Patrol said that agents targeted Morales-Luna “for being in the country illegally” and also said the agency suspected her of recruiting drivers for a transnational smuggling organization in East County.

Since her arrest, Morales-Luna had been held at Otay Mesa Detention Center, and a relative has been taking care of her daughters — ages 17, 15, and 12.

Before the bond hearing, her legal team submitted a 72-page packet of letters and other evidence about her character and participation in the community. It included a letter from National City Mayor Ron Morrison.

The question before the court on Tuesday was whether Morales-Luna was likely to show up to future court hearings and whether she was dangerous to the community, immigration Judge Zsa Zsa De Paolo explained to a courtroom.

The attorney for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement didn’t argue that Morales-Luna was a flight risk, noting her U.S. citizen daughters and that she’d been here for over a decade, but said, “My concern is her participation in an active smuggling scheme.”

The ICE attorney noted that one of three people charged earlier this year in a smuggling case named Morales-Luna as being involved.

Morales-Luna’s attorney William Baker countered that the two women had worked together as cleaners about five years ago but denied that Morales-Luna had any involvement with the smuggling operation.

“It’s sort of silly to argue she’s a danger,” Baker said, pointing out that the criminal smuggling case has been dismissed and that no evidence had been presented linking Morales-Luna to that case.

The ICE attorney also told the judge that Morales-Luna had voluntarily returned to Mexico three times, once in 1997 and twice in 2004.

De Paolo concluded that Morales-Luna is not a danger to the community. “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,” the judge said.

The single mother told the judge that she is a cook for a food truck making between $400 and $600 per week and the sole supporter of her three daughters.

De Paolo ordered that Morales-Luna be released on her own recognizance without paying a bond.

An observer clapped once at the back of the room before De Paolo hushed him.

The teacher who posted the arrest videos, Judith Castro, sat with Morales-Luna’s three daughters in the first row of benches behind her, their faces stoic.

Outside the detention facility, Yessica Estrada, the eldest daughter, described how difficult life has been 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.”

She said she misses her mother’s baking — cinnamon rolls, pastries and cream puffs — and watching movies together.

At first, her daughters didn’t want to tell anyone about the arrest, but teachers noticed they weren’t trying as hard in school, said Estrada, who will graduate high school this year.

“I was in shock,” Estrada recalled of the moments after the arrest. “I was angry and confused. They just left us there.”

She said she was glad her sister was one of the people who filmed the incident.

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

She’s grateful to community members who have been offering support since then.

The allegations that Border Patrol made about her mother have been difficult to handle as well — she’s heard about people talking about it in school.

“The people that know her know that she’s not anything that they’re accusing her of,” Estrada said.

When asked if she had anticipated that Morales-Luna would be released, Castro, the teacher, said, “Of course.”

“We have faith,” Castro said. “We’re rooting that she’ll be able to stay.”

Morales-Luna flashed a broad smile after she was released Tuesday night from the facility as her daughters rushed to greet her, carrying balloons. Her case will transfer to the downtown San Diego immigration court to determine whether she can stay in the U.S.

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kate.morrissey@sduniontribune.com, @bgirledukate on Twitter

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