As Queens Reps rally nearby, pregnant mom’s deportation case illustrates fear among noncitizens

Alma Centeno Santiago’s mother, daughter, son and sister outside federal immigration court in Manhattan.  Eagle  photo by Phineas Rueckert

Alma Centeno Santiago’s mother, daughter, son and sister outside federal immigration court in Manhattan. Eagle photo by Phineas Rueckert

By Phineas Rueckert 

An immigration court hearing for Alma Centeno Santiago, the pregnant Queens Village mom who was detained by ICE outside of Queens Family Court in April, was postponed until July 23, according to her lawyers and family members, who gathered at the Manhattan immigration courthouse Tuesday. Centeno Santiago remains in a Louisiana jail, where she was transferred on the eve of her scheduled deportation last month.

An hour after her family left the Lower Manhattan courthouse, a contingent of New York City members of Congress arrived. U.S. Reps. Hakeem Jeffries, Nydia Velázquez and Carolyn Maloney, who represent parts of Queens, and U.S. Reps. Max Rose, Yvette Clarke and Jerry Nadler, visited Foley Square outside the courthouse to denounce a secret Facebook group comprised of current and former border patrol agents who mocked migrants and elected officials.

House Democrats, including the five members of Congress, have called for an investigation into their behavior in the days since a ProPublica investigation revealed the offensive Facebook group. 

The two gatherings were not related, but demonstrate the fear and suspicion that many noncitizens experience during a surge in immigration enforcement activity, and illustrate the conditions in federal immigration jails.

Still stuck in a Louisiana jail

Centeno Santiago was arrested by ICE agents after making an appearance in Queens Family Court to resolve a dispute with her child’s father on April 12. She moved to the U.S. from Guatemala in 2004 and ICE said she skipped a past deportation hearing more than a decade ago, giving them grounds to make the arrest. An ICE spokesperson said she had two prior convictions for disorderly conduct.

“My sister is a good woman, a good, attentive mother, a good daughter and a good sister,” Centeno Santiago’s sister Brenda told the Eagle in Spanish. “We are hoping for her freedom, above all because of her pregnancy.” 

Centeno Santiago was detained in New Jersey’s Bergen County Detention Center, where she experienced severe stomach pain and began speaking out. Her lawyers said they planned to argue Tuesday that the deportation order was an attempt to curtail her freedom of speech. 

Centeno Santiago was transferred to an ICE facility in Louisiana from Bergen County Detention Center June 25, and was scheduled to be deported the next morning, according to Melissa Chua, New York Legal Assistance Group’s associate director of immigrant protection.

Her attorneys stepped in to prevent the deportation, but she remains in a Louisiana jail. Telemundo and the Eagle were the first to report on her arrest and deportation. Since her transfer to Louisiana, the Daily News, WNYC and nationwide media outlets have picked up the story, generating even more attention and prompting response from prominent leaders, including Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand. 

About a dozen of Centeno Santiago’s relatives gathered outside the United States District Court in Manhattan expecting the proceedings to take place Tuesday. They had hoped to have more clarity on Centeno Santiago’s case — but will now have to wait at least another three weeks.

“We all didn’t go to work because we wanted to be here for her,” Centeno Santiago’s friend Jennifer Pacheco said. “I have no idea why they postponed it.” 

U.S. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (center) denounces discriminatory immigration enforcement agents alongside U.S. Rep. Max Rose (left), U.S. Rep. Nydia Velazquez (second from left), U.S. Rep. Jerry Nadler (second from right) and U.S. Rep. Yvette Clark (right).  Eagle  photo by Phineas Rueckert

U.S. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (center) denounces discriminatory immigration enforcement agents alongside U.S. Rep. Max Rose (left), U.S. Rep. Nydia Velazquez (second from left), U.S. Rep. Jerry Nadler (second from right) and U.S. Rep. Yvette Clark (right). Eagle photo by Phineas Rueckert

The immigration judge issued a continuance of the Temporary Restraining Order, which prevents ICE from deporting Centeno Santiago until the hearing on July 23, said attorney Jodi Ziesemer, the director of the Immigrant Protection at the New York Legal Assistant Group.

“Alma remains detained in Louisiana, away from her NYLAG legal team and her family. This includes her two U.S. citizen children, ages 3 and 11, who miss her terribly,” Ziesemer said. “We have asked for Alma to be transferred back to the East Coast so she can be near her family, but the government has said it is ICE’s decision, yet ICE refuses to answer our calls.”

Ziesemer said the Louisiana and New Jersey jails where Centeno Santiago feature inhumane conditions and a lack of adequate nutrition and medical care. Immigrants’ rights advocates, including U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who represents part of Queens and visited the jails earlier this week, have likened them to “concentration camps.”

"Alma’s case highlight similar abuses,” Ziesemer said. “She is experiencing a medically difficult pregnancy in ICE custody. She advocated for herself and her unborn child because ICE was denying her proper medical care. However, instead of providing her proper medical care, ICE isolated Alma, continued to deny her basic care, and was indifferent to her suffering.”

Pacheco said she thanked attorneys and supporters advocating for Centeno Santiago to be reunited with her two children, Angel and Amy. 

“We want to say thank you to the lawyers and to everyone who has been supporting her,” Pacheco said added. 

‘Culture’ of discrimination among immigration enforcement

An hour after Centeno Santiago’s hearing was postponed, the five members of Congress arrived at Foley Square near the courthouse to denounce a “culture” of discrimination among immigrant enforcement agents.

“We need a top-to-bottom review of this kind of culture,” said Velázquez, who represents a part of Queens in New York’s 7th Congressional District. “For once, have dignity and resign.”

Nadler, a former prosecutor, called on Customs and Border Patrol to brief representatives on the behavior of its agents and said that the House Judiciary Committee planned to hold hearings on family separation and conditions for migrants in detention on the border. 

“[The agents are] reflecting the racism from the White House,” he said, in a direct dig at President Donald Trump.

The closed Facebook group, which called itself 10-15 — code for “aliens in custody” — comprised nearly 10,000 members. In posts, CBP agents joked about throwing burritos at elected officials, including Ocasio-Cortez and U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, who recently visited detention centers on the border. Members also suggested that an AP photo showing two migrants who died while attempting to cross the border could be “another edited photo.” 

At the conference, Jeffries said that all of the representatives would be traveling to the border to visit CBP detention centers in the coming weeks. 

“Those aren’t alien children, those are God’s children,” Jeffries said. “We may have all come on different ships, but we’re all in the same boat.” 

Additional reporting by David Brand.