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Afghan 'Special Immigrant' Family Released, Reunited After Detention By U.S. Border Police

  • Ron Synovitz

Demonstrators rally against the immigration rules implemented by U.S. President Donald Trump's administration at Los Angeles International Airport last month.

Lawyers for an Afghan family detained by border officials in Los Angeles after traveling to the United States on "special immigrant" visas say the family has been released from custody at separate locations and safely reunited.

But the attorneys say the family's case is not resolved, and that they still must pass an "admissibility interview" set for early April before they are allowed to resettle in the United States.

The lawyers say it is still not clear why the father, mother, and their three sons -- aged 7, 6, and 8 months -- were taken into custody at Los Angeles International Airport on March 2, interrogated, and held for some 40 hours.

The family was separated, with the father being sent to a detention center in Orange County, California, while the mother and three children were ordered by customs officials to be sent to a separate detention facility in Texas.

The intervention of the lawyers, who worked on the case pro bono, led to a federal court decision that prevented the Afghan mother and three children from being sent to the detention center in Texas.

Attorney Robert Blume described the detention as a mistake by U.S. immigration authorities, saying: "The government swung and missed on this one. They just got it wrong."

The International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP) said in its court filing to seek the family's release that the couple and their children were granted "special immigrant visas" in return for work the father had performed for the U.S. government in Afghanistan that put the family's lives at risk.

In order to qualify for that program, applicants go through a difficult and lengthy vetting process that often takes more than five years and requires letters of recommendation from senior U.S. military officers or U.S. government officials in Afghanistan.

The family upon arriving in Los Angeles was scheduled to board a connecting flight to the state of Washington where they planned to resettle. Instead, they were detained by agents of U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

"After the threats and violence the father had experienced in Afghanistan because of his work for our country, the family looked forward to a new life here," Blume said. "It is an incredible injustice to treat the family like this after scrupulous vetting and background checks and after the father provided years of dedicated service to the United States government."

"The family's arrest and detention were improper, and the denial of access to legal counsel for more than 40 hours violated the tenets of decency, public policy and, most importantly, the Constitution of the United States," he said.

"We are extremely pleased to see the family released from detention and reunited, though we are disheartened that this was a battle that needed to be fought in the first place."

Lawyer Abbey Hudson, who witnessed the scenes at the Los Angeles airport, said: "The family was clearly terrified and had no understanding of what they were being asked to do or why. The children were crying, the mother -- who doesn't speak English -- was trying to wrangle all three children while dealing with instructions from the agents on the ground telling her to board a flight to Texas."

Hudson said the pro bono legal team was "very happy to be able to connect with her in time to prevent this from happening."

Attorney Caitlin Bellis said it was "unacceptable that this family came here to start their new life, and instead of a welcome mat they were nearly torn apart."

U.S. immigration officials have tightened their border security checks for incoming foreign travelers since President Donald Trump on January 27 issued an executive order that temporarily barred entry into the United States of citizens from seven predominantly Muslim countries.

But that original order -- which called for "extreme vetting" of arriving migrants -- was later blocked by U.S. federal judges.

The detention on March 2 of the Afghan family, whose name was not released, came despite the block on Trump's executive order, and despite the fact that Afghanistan was not one of the seven countries listed under the executive order.

IRAP director Becca Heller said it was "completely outrageous that immigration enforcement acted with such lack of transparency and accountability, especially towards our military allies."

Heller said: "Congress created the Special Immigrant Visa program to protect those whose live are in danger because of their service. The administration granted this family a visa after a multiyear screening process, in recognition of the dangers they faced because of the father's faithful and valuable service to the United States."

"When they arrived, instead of being protected and welcomed, the family was separated and detained for three days with no access to courts or lawyers," Heller said. "If this is how we treat our allies, we will not have allies for long."

On March 6, Trump signed a revised executive order that freezes the issuance of new visas for citizens from six predominantly Muslim countries -- Iran, Syria, Sudan, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen.

The revised order, due to come into effect on March 16, says valid preexisting visas would still be honored for individuals from those six countries.

With reporting by AP and Reuters
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