OPINION: The ‘shame’ of detaining a pregnant woman in ICE jail

A judge blocked Alma Centeno Santiago’s deportation Tuesday, the day she was transferred to a jail in Louisiana and scheduled to be deported to Guatemala. Photo courtesy of Centeno Santiago’s family.

A judge blocked Alma Centeno Santiago’s deportation Tuesday, the day she was transferred to a jail in Louisiana and scheduled to be deported to Guatemala. Photo courtesy of Centeno Santiago’s family.

By Carinne Murphy

Special to the Eagle

As I sat in my beautiful suburban home in Bergen County, NJ, handling chores while my two young children are gleefully playing in our large, tree-filled yard I read a horrible story happening right in Bergen County, not far from where we live. 

I am reading that Alma Sofia Centeno Santiago, 34, is being held in isolation at the Bergen County Jail.  Through Trump’s immoral and unconstitutional policies and because our Democratic Bergen County Sheriff agreed to sign off on a contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, immigrants can now be picked up by ICE and detained in our Bergen County Jail.  These immigrants literally get picked up and jailed because they do not have a social security number.  No other reason is needed due to Trump’s new immigration policies. No crime committed, nothing, just picked up by ICE and pulled away from their families and stuck in hellish prisons with no notice.  

I remember being pregnant and ill.  The swelling, the pain, the puking and the constant hospitalizations.  I had my wonderful family surrounding me, and the best medical care. Meanwhile, Alma Sofia Centeno Santiago is three months pregnant and has very serious medical issues, and is right now, as I write this article, sitting in isolation in a dingy jail, with no support and little medical care.  

She has been hospitalized twice for stomach infections and, since she was arrested in April 2019, has been unable to eat the greasy and sub-par food she’s being served in the Bergen County Jail.  She has been vomiting and is dehydrated. Moreover, the Bergen County Jail has been under medical quarantine because of a mumps outbreak, and rightfully so. Alma Sofia Centeno Santiago is worried about having a miscarriage if she does not receive proper medical treatment or get access to an obstetrician. 

ICE plans to deport this severely ill pregnant mother with two children, even though she is still fighting her removal order in court. I am horrified that our federal government and our local elected leaders are allowing people to be jailed for no reason, and once they are incarcerated we have made an active decision to treat immigrants as subhuman.

Both sides of my family came from generations of people that emigrated from Eastern European countries. They came with little, didn’t speak the language and worked hard, which helped them establish themselves and have U.S. citizen children like me. I ended up with a nice life.  

At that time there were many biases in the US against immigrants, but the process was more fully supported.  Back then, sponsors waited for you at ports of entry. There were fewer bans on the types of people that could come in. 

Our president has closed ports of entry.  People are dying from starvation and heat stroke.  Children are dying in newly formed concentration tent camps set up by our own government while private companies profit off people’s plight.  Sponsors are now scared to come pick up their family members in fear of law enforcement. Paperwork is lost. Money keeps flowing in with no positive results for these immigrants.  Shame on the USA. Shame on us who remain complicit and stay silent.   

Alma Sofia Centeno Santiago is one of several immigrants who have been arrested by ICE in and around courts in Queens and elsewhere in New York since 2017, according to a report by the Immigrant Defense Project. The report revealed that courthouse ICE arrests have increased by 1,700 percent in New York between 2016 and 2018.  IDP documented 202 courthouse ICE arrests statewide in 2018, with Queens and Brooklyn accounting for the highest number of arrests in the state.  

We can ignore statistics. We can’t ignore Alma. She is very ill and pregnant, and was just living her life, raising her children in Queens, and now she is sitting in isolation at the Bergen County Jail.   

Alma’s attorney filed an appeal to stop the deportation order in hopes she will be allowed to stay in the U.S. as she continues to apply for asylum, but the government has expedited her removal from the USA before her case has gone before immigration court.  

On Tuesday, a judge decided that Alma can temporarily stay in the country while she fights for legal status.  If she is deported, she could be permanently separated from her 11-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son, both of whom were born in the USA and cannot travel to Guatemala because of the dangerous conditions.

I am watching my children playing, and I am just thinking, “What I would do if I was on my way to work and ICE agents just came and arrested me?”

I am almost the same age as this woman, also living a good life, working hard and being kind to my family and neighbors, and the next thing I know I could be in a jail eating moldy food and not being called by my name, but by a number.  No visits from my family or friends, just sitting alone in isolation?  

Alma’s story is happening in county jails across New Jersey and throughout the nation. The Bergen County ICE Contract allows about 19 million dollars of our tax monies to go into our Bergen County Jail, which supports this immigration horror and this dehumanizing and unjust policy pushed by our own federal government under Trump.  About nine million of this federal tax dollars sits in the Bergen County pot, and our Democratic Freeholders that maintain our County’s budget cannot tell us what are tax money is being used for. The purpose of ICE was to briefly detain and then legally deport criminals after a hearing in order to keep residents safe. I do not feel safer by having an ill, pregnant mother that has two other children being dehumanized and ripped from her family.  We can and will do better. Our political leaders are supporting this, and they represent us. Your constituents and residents do not want this, and if policies do not change then we will elect better representatives.

I just learned that Alma Sofia Centeno Santiago has been transferred to another jail.  Advocates have been calling ICE Field Officer Director Thomas Decker at (212)-264-5316 or (212) 264-4195 and Field Officer Christopher Shanahan at (212)-863-3401 demanding her stay.  The ICE agents that did answer were either rude, lied to them about their policies or just hung up. These agents are being paid through our federal tax dollars, and should be following our U.S. Constitution and our laws.  They are not. We recently had over 100 immigrants transferred from the State of Texas (the actual number will not be released) to the Bergen County Jail. Then, immigrants in our Jail were transferred to Essex County Jail. Immigrants are sick and dying and our counties are making money off of these atrocities, using our tax dollars to do so.  

You can also call the Bergen County Sheriff Anthony Cureton at (201)-336-3500, and ask him why his jail and Bergen County is supporting this horror.  You can also attend the next Bergen County Freeholder’s Meeting and ask our Democratic Freeholders why they are approving a budget that supports immigration detention (detention is temporary, this is incarceration).

I will be holding my family close to me tonight, and showing extra love to my children as I give them kisses and tuck them into their safe, comfortable beds in their clean and safe home.  How lucky am I?

Carinne Murphy is a corporate paralegal and small business owner living in Bergen County, New Jersey.