By Anna Merlan
A pregnant and very ill woman being detained and held in isolation by Immigration and Customs Enforcement is being “fast-tracked” for deportation, she and her lawyers say, after asking for better nutrition and medical care, and then contacting the media and elected officials for help. Alma Sofia Centeno Santiago, 33, is originally from Guatemala. She has lived in New York City for 15 years and has two children who are U.S. citizens. ICE has told her she could be deported as soon as Wednesday, according to her legal team.
Centeno Santiago’s detainment and alleged treatment in ICE custody were first reported by Telemundo. She was arrested by four ICE agents on April 21, 2019, according to the New York Legal Assistance Group, who is representing her. Telemundo reports that she was taken into custody after an appearance before the Queens Family Court, a tactic that saw a staggering rise after President Trump took office. (The New York-based Immigrant Defense Project documented a 1,700 percent increase in arrests and attempted arrests outside courthouses in the years since Trump’s election. Earlier this year, the state reined in the practice, requiring ICE agents to have a judicial warrant for such arrests.) Centeno Santiago’s relatives told the New York Daily News that she was at family court for a child custody hearing when she was arrested; the HuffPost has a conflicting report, saying she was “resolving a domestic dispute with her boyfriend” when she was arrested.
“She was handcuffed and taken right off the street in front of Alma’s mother and other witnesses,” says Jodi Ziesemer, an attorney at NYLAG and the director of the organization’s Immigrant Protection Unit. HuffPost reports that before her arrest, Centeno Santiago lived with her boyfriend, her mother, her two children, and a niece, and that she’s worked at a bakery and served as the family’s main breadwinner. She’s currently being held at New Jersey’s Bergen County Detention Facility, which the Queens Daily Eagle reports is under quarantine due to a mumps outbreak.
Centeno Santiago only learned that she was pregnant after she was taken into ICE custody, Ziesemer says, and soon began experiencing vomiting, stomach pain, and dehydration. HuffPost reports she’s been hospitalized twice for stomach infections since entering the facility.
Centeno Santiago’s mother told the New York Daily News, “She has pains,” adding, “she’s not used to the [detention facility] food, they’re not feeding her breakfast. They won’t let her wash some days.” An ICE spokesperson told the Daily News that “all detainees receive necessary and appropriate health services, food, and care.” (This of course isn’t the first time people in immigration custody have come forward about inhumane and illegal conditions.)
“She is not being provided an adequate diet—no fruits or vegetables,” Ziesemer says. “Her serious complaints and obvious ailments—vomiting for days, unable to keep food down, complaints of serious pain—have gone unheeded.” Ziesemer says that Centeno Santiago was not sent to see an OBGYN after she was hospitalized, and says her care is substandard in other ways: “She is often not given meals, denied water and other basics.”
After her detainment, Centeno Santiago began seeking help, making contact with the First Friends of New York and New Jersey as well as the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey; those organizations helped her obtain legal representation through NYLAG. Last week, with help from family and friends on the outside, Centeno Santiago began contacting media outlets as well as Senator Kirsten Gillibrand.
After her case started to get media attention, Ziesemer says, Centeno Santiago was taken to the hospital for a check-up, but faced what her legal team believes was retaliatory treatment upon her return to the jail facility.
“Alma tells me that she is being held in isolation—which sounds like it might be separate from solitary confinement—since Friday when she was brought back from a hospital visit,” Ziesemer says. “She is not seeing other inmates or jail officers. She is only seeing the jail doctor who told her that she is being isolated because she is ‘making too much noise and causing problems.’”
Centeno Santiago originally came to the United States in 2004, when she was 18. Ziesemer says that, as she understands it, she had a multitude of reasons to come: “She was fleeing some of the same violence and instability as recent refugees… Her family is poor, of indigenous background, and she was perceived as being different, perhaps gay, because of the way she dressed and acted. This created a dangerous situation for her as a teenager and she fled seeking safety in the U.S.”
Centeno Santiago’s legal team says she was detained after crossing the border, but then released and told she’d receive a notice to show up for a court hearing—a notice that the woman says she never received. When a hearing was held in San Antonio later that year, she wasn’t present, and was ordered deported. Centeno Santiago never learned of the order, Ziesemer says, and lived in the U.S. for the next decade and a half, until her arrest. (This chain of deportation-triggering events is, sadly, incredibly common.)
The Daily News reports that ICE is claiming Centeno Santiago “has two criminal convictions stemming from arrests in September 2018 and April,” which her family told the paper stemmed from disputes with the father of her two children, from whom she’s now separated. NYLAG told the newspaper that Centeno Santiago pled guilty to two minor offenses, served no jail time and is “not a risk to the community.” They’re arguing that she should be allowed to stay in the U.S., given that she has a case on appeal right now, and received inadequate notice of the first immigration hearing back in 2004.
“To be clear, ICE is within their legal authority to deport Alma,” Ziesemer says. “However, given that she has an appeal pending and is arguing that she never received notice of her original court hearing, this is the thinnest of legal grounds on which to base a deportation. If the court reopens Alma’s case, she will have a right to return to the U.S. if she is deported.”
Ziesemer points out that in most cases like Centeno Santiago’s, ICE wouldn’t be moving quite so fast. “Typically, ICE is cautious about deporting someone whose case will be ruled on in short order—in a month—by a court and who is [also] exhibiting medical problems.”
Meanwhile, Centeno Santiago’s family is trying to maintain some semblance of normalcy as her case races through the system. Telemundo’s Pablo Gutierrez reports that Centeno Santiago’s daughter Amy, who is 11, visited her mother in detention wearing her cap and gown from her recent elementary school graduation. “We gave a letter to the government, I think, or the lawyer,” Amy told Gutierrez, reflecting a child’s obvious confusion and distress at her mother’s absence, “to see if they would let her free. But they didn’t.”
Originally published in Jezebel on July 25, 2019