Illegal immigrants are kidnapping children and bringing them across the border, hoping to appear to be families so they can take advantage of lax enforcement policies, the Obama administration told a federal appeals court on Tuesday.

Leon Fresco, a deputy assistant attorney general who handles immigration cases, made the stunning claim as he defended the administration’s policy of detaining illegal immigrant parents and children caught traveling together as they jump the border. After a federal judge last year ordered the families quickly released, Mr. Fresco said it’s served as an enticement for kidnapping.

“When people now know that when I come as a family unit, I won’t be apprehended and detained — we now have people being abducted so that they can be deemed as family units, so that they can avoid detention,” Mr. Fresco told the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

He did not back up that claim in court, and did not respond to a follow-up email seeking comment. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the agency that handles detention and deportation, declined to comment, citing the ongoing case, while Customs and Border Protection, which guards the border, did not respond to a request for comment.

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