By David Brand
A pregnant mother of two from Queens Village may be deported to Guatemala tomorrow after she was arrested and detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents at Queens Family Court in April.
Alma Centeno Santiago, 34, has experienced severe stomach problems during her two-and-a-half-month detention at Bergen County Detention Facility in New Jersey. Her current health, and the health of her fetus, remain unclear, her attorney and loved ones told the Eagle.
Her niece Naomi and friend Jennifer Pacheco, both of Queens, said they had not yet heard from Centeno Santiago as of 3:45 p.m. on Monday. She typically calls them before 9:30 a.m, they said.
“We are nervous and concerned because she usually calls us,” Pacheco said. “She said if she didn’t call then they may have moved her.”
“They told her that maybe Sunday night going into Monday, or Monday night going into Tuesday that she will probably be removed and deported,” she added.
Centeno Santiago has two children, a daughter named Amy, 11, and a son who is 3. Pacheco said Amy understands part of the situation but doesn’t comprehend that her mother could be kicked out of the country. Centeno Santiago moved from Guatemala to the United States in 2004. Both of her children were born here.
“Amy knows what’s going on, but she doesn’t really understand,” Pacheco said. ‘She keeps asking, ‘Why can’t they let you go?’”
Telemundo reporter Pablo Gutierrez tweeted photos and audio of Amy visiting the Bergen County Detention Facility to show her mother the diploma she received from her recent graduation.
Pacheco said the family is concerned about the children’s mental health, and about securing legal custody of them if Centeno Santiago is deported.
“Her mom is the only person she has. Her father is no longer in the picture,” Pacheco said. “She said she doesn’t want to live because her mom is everything to her.”
If Centeno Santiago is forced to return to Guatemala, the family is unsure where she will stay.
Her mother moved from Guatemala to join the family in Queens in February. Centeno Santiago has no other family members in her home country, except a brother who she does not keep in touch with, her niece Naomi said.
“I don’t know what will happen today or tomorrow with my aunt,” Naomi said in Spanish.
Centeno Santiago began experiencing severe stomach pains related to an infection shortly after being arrested and detained in the Bergen County jail, Telemundo reported. At least six people at the jail have been diagnosed with mumps and the facility was quarantined earlier this month.
Centeno Santiago’s attorney Jodi Ziesemer of the New York Legal Assistance Group said she was not sure the impact of the illness on the fetus.
“I don’t know if she knows the answer,” Ziesemer told the Eagle earlier this month. “She hasn’t been told anything about whether her recent stomach problems will have an effect.”
Centeno Santiago was arrested after appearing in Family Court following an altercation with her son’s father. She is one of dozens of immigrants who have been arrested by ICE in around courthouses in New York City and across the state in recent years. More than 200 immigrants were detained by ICE in and around courthouses statewide in 2018, according to a report by the Immigrant Defense Project
At least 33 people were arrested by ICE in and around Queens courthouses in 2018. Only Brooklyn, with 35, had more ICE courthouse arrests than Queens.
Centeno Santiago has two children who are U.S. citizens and has lived in the country since 2004, Telemundo reported. She was at Family Court to settle a dispute with her partner and the circumstances of her arrest have stood out to immigrants’ rights advocates.
“This a particularly harrowing example of the human devastation caused when ICE enters the courthouse,” Make the Road Action Managing Director Daniel Altschuler told the Eagle earlier this month.
The New York State Office of Court Administration issued a directive in April — just days after Centeno Santiago’s arrest — that prevents ICE agents from making arrests inside courthouses without a judicial warrant or judicial order.
The measure does not stop ICE from arresting people outside courthouses or on their way to and from court appearances, however. A bill that has failed to pass in the state legislature would prevent ICE agents from targeting any individual on their way to and from court.
New York County District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr., Bronx County District Attorney Darcel Clark and three others DAs from across the state signed onto the letter earlier this month arguing that ICE’s presence near courts disrupts the legal justice system by discouraging victims and witnesses to come to court. The prosecutors urged the state Assembly and Senate to pass the Protect Our Courts Act.
“ICE arrests at courthouses interfere with court proceedings, are a potential threat to public safety and instill fear in immigrant communities,” the letter states. “As District Attorneys, we are charged with administering justice in the state, and this issue significantly undermines that purpose. We request that the New York State legislature immediately act to address this crucial issue.”
A federal judge in Massachusetts issued an injunction June 20 that prevents ICE “from civilly arresting parties, witnesses, and others attending Massachusetts courthouses on official business while they are going to, attending, or leaving the courthouses.”
The measure was the first time a judge has stopped ICE from making arrests across an entire state, the AP reported.
Bergen County Sheriff’s Office Chief of Staff Derek Sands told the Eagle earlier this month that Department of Justice laws prevent the jail from sharing information about detainees in ICE custody, including Centeno-Santiago.
“However, in general the medical staff at the jail take all necessary precautions for inmates/detainees whose medical conditions require specialized medical services including prenatal care. The Bergen County Jail is a triple accredited facility and does everything to maintain the general health, welfare, and safety of the individuals in the facility,” Sands said.
ICE did not respond to multiple requests for comment.