SANTA ANA, Calif. (AP) — An Afghan family of five who traveled to the United States on special visas and were detained by immigration officials at the Los Angeles airport were released from custody Monday, according to the U.S. government and the family's attorneys.
The mother, father and their three young sons, including a baby, arrived at the airport Thursday for a connecting flight to Washington state, where they planned to resettle.
Instead, U.S. immigration officials detained them and split them up. They planned to send the mother and children to a detention center in Texas, but lawyers intervened over the weekend and got a federal judge to quash the transfer.
Homeland Security officials haven't said why the family was held, while immigrant advocates asserted in a court petition that there was "absolutely no justification whatsoever."
Government officials said in a federal court hearing Monday that the family was given back their passports and visas and will be interviewed April 5 in Seattle to determine if they are eligible to use those visas to remain in the United States.
Lawyers said the family never should have been subjected to this treatment after going through the more than yearlong process to obtain special immigrant visas, which are given to foreigners who work for the U.S. military in their countries, often risking their lives.
The father of the family worked different jobs for the U.S. military in Afghanistan for more than a decade and was assaulted and shot during his time there, said attorney Rob Blume.
"It is a victory in a battle that shouldn't have been fought," Blume told reporters after the hearing. "The government swung and missed on this issue, and they just got it wrong."
U.S. District Judge Josephine Staton said she will retain jurisdiction of the case and that the government cannot detain or remove the family from the U.S. without providing 72 hours' notice to their attorneys.
"I'm just trying to prevent further injury," she said.
Josh Busch, a spokesman with Public Counsel, said the family was meeting with their attorneys and "taking it all in." He wasn't sure whether they would stay in the Los Angeles area overnight or head to Washington right away.
He said their identities would remain protected for now, citing potential danger to them because of the father's work for the U.S. government in Afghanistan.
Over the weekend, Staton issued a temporary order blocking federal authorities from removing the family from California, and setting Monday's hearing in Santa Ana.
In court, the family's lawyers wanted the judge to require the U.S. to review the family's case sooner. But government attorneys, who spoke in court via telephone, said they needed more time and a visa doesn't guarantee someone can enter the country.
"A visa is a travel document. A visa is not a determination of admissibility into the United States," said Joseph Carilli, an attorney for the Justice Department.
A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to provide more details about the case. A spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which screens travelers at airports, also declined to discuss the family's situation.
Earlier Monday, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials said in a statement that the agency would comply with the judge's order "and all other legal requirements."
After being stopped at Los Angeles International Airport, the father was held at a detention center while his wife and young sons — one who is 8 months old — were held at a hotel, the family's lawyers said. In addition to detaining the family, Customs and Border Protection prevented attorneys from communicating with them, lawyers said in court filings.
The case comes as President Donald Trump is stepping up immigration enforcement at U.S. airports, on the border with Mexico and in many local communities. On Monday, Trump signed a reworked order of his previously blocked travel ban barring new visas for citizens from six Muslim-majority countries. Afghanistan is not one of them.
Immigrant advocates have decried Trump's efforts to block visitors from overseas and ramp up deportations of immigrants in the country illegally. On Monday, advocates in Los Angeles called for a rally to support a man who was arrested by immigration agents after dropping off his daughter at school.
Associated Press writer Amanda Lee Myers contributed to this report.