By Sue Horton
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - U.S. agents detained an Afghan family of five with valid entry visas at Los Angeles International Airport and have been holding them for several days in California, according to legal papers filed in federal court in California by human rights lawyers.
The father, mother and three small children were granted Special Immigrant Visas because family members risked their lives to defend the U.S. government overseas, said the filing from lawyers with the International Refugee Assistance Project, a legal aid group for refugees and displaced persons.
"Yet despite this record of service on behalf of our country, CBP has detained this brave family and denied them access to counsel," said the petition, filed on Saturday with the U.S. District Court Central District of California, referring to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
CBP declined to comment on the matter.
Immigrant advocates are increasingly concerned about tougher scrutiny of visitors, even those with the proper documentation and visas, as part of President Donald Trump's crackdown on illegal immigration on national security grounds.
"The betrayal of this family by the U.S. government shocks the conscience," the petition said, adding the father, who was not named, was employed by the U.S. government in Afghanistan. The wife and children, aged 7 years, 6 years, and 8 months, were also not named.
The lawsuit did not state the nature of his employment but the visas are often granted after careful vetting of people who serve in jobs such as translators for the U.S. military.
"It is extremely unusual if not entirely unique” for someone with this type of visa to be detained upon arrival. The visas require extreme vetting to get," said Talia Inlender, a lawyer with Public Counsel who is part of the family's defense team.
The family arrived in the United States on Thursday and was almost immediately taken into custody by CBP agents at the Los Angeles airport, the filing said.
The mother was being detained in downtown Los Angeles with her children, while the father was in a maximum-security detention facility in Orange County, California, Inlender told Reuters.
The family's lawyers said the government intended to transfer the mother and children to Texas, but they persuaded a U.S. district court judge on Saturday night to intervene and stop the move.
Online court filings related to the stay were not immediately located.
When asked to comment about the judge's order, Carl Rusnok, a spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said in an email: “ICE will fully comply with the March 4 judicial order and all other legal requirements.”
The government may explain its reasons for detaining the family at a hearing on Monday in federal court in Orange County, Inlender said.
“We think it is going to be hard if not impossible to justify keeping a family in custody for days on end without access to their lawyers,” she said.
Trump issued a directive in January suspending travel to the United States by citizens of seven mostly Muslim countries. Afghanistan was not on the list and a federal court suspended the order.
The Jan. 27 order caused chaos at airports around the world in the following days as visa holders heading to the United States were pulled off planes or turned around on arrival at U.S. airports.
(Additional reporting by Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas; Editing by Frank McGurty and Peter Cooney)