Immigration and Customs Enforcement plans to deport a severely ill pregnant mother with two children on Wednesday, even though she’s still fighting her removal order in court, the woman’s lawyer told HuffPost.
Alma Sofia Centeno Santiago, 33, is being held in isolation at a New Jersey county jail that houses immigrants, despite the fact that she is three months pregnant and has serious medical issues, said Jodi Ziesemer, the director of immigrant protection at the New York Legal Assistance Group.
The Guatemalan woman has been hospitalized twice for stomach infections since being arrested in April and has been unable to eat the greasy food she says she’s being served in detention. She has been vomiting and is dehydrated, according to Ziesemer. The detention center is under medical quarantine because of a mumps outbreak, and Centeno Santiago is worried about having a miscarriage if she doesn’t receive proper medical treatment or have access to an obstetrician.
“It’s appalling,” Ziesemer said. “We as a country have made a decision to treat detainees as subhuman.”
Last week, Ziesemer and her team filed an appeal to Centeno Santiago’s deportation order in hopes she will be allowed to stay in the U.S. as she applies for asylum but said the government has expedited her removal from the country before her case has gone before an immigration court. On Tuesday, Ziesmer said a judge will decide whether the mother can temporarily stay in the U.S. to fight for legal status.
If Centeno Santiago 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 U.S. and can’t travel to Guatemala because of the dangerous conditions.
“We need her here,” said her 70-year-old mother, Abladia Santiago Bermudes. “Her kids are here. What are we going to do without her?”
ICE did not return a request for comment on Centeno Santiago’s case.
President Donald Trump’s administration has come under fire for its treatment of immigrants in Border Patrol stations, which lawyers have described as horrific and filthy. But longer-term detention centers are also a dangerous place for pregnant women, activists say. Last year, the Trump administration ended a policy of presuming release for pregnant women. And more mothers like Centeno Santiago could wind up detained; Trump said that in two weeks, ICE will be conducting raids on roughly 2,000 migrant families with court-ordered removals if Democrats don’t agree to tighten asylum laws.
Centeno Santiago has lived in the U.S. since 2004, when she fled gang violence in Guatemala. She was briefly detained after crossing the border, then released. Fifteen years later, ICE arrested Centeno Santiago outside a family court in Queens, New York, where she was resolving a domestic dispute with her boyfriend.
The government claims the undocumented immigrant failed to show up in court 15 years ago and was given a deportation order. Centeno Santiago’s lawyers are appealing her removal because the mother says she never received the notice to appear in immigration court.
Yet, rather than allowing her case to go before the courts, ICE said it would deport Centeno Santiago on Wednesday. Ziesemer said this violates the immigrant’s legal rights and suspects the agency is retaliating since the mother contacted presidential candidate Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and the media about her situation on Friday.
“They’re trying to chill her First Amendment rights,” Ziesemer said, adding that there’s no other reason why her deportation should be expedited. “The fact that they have the power to send people to another country who are making them look bad is a violation of our Constitution.”
Centeno Santiago lives in Queens with her boyfriend, her 70-year-old mother, her two children and a niece. Before being arrested in April, she worked at a bakery and was the main income earner for her family.
Her mother came to the U.S. four months ago because she was being threatened by gangs in Guatemala. Santiago Bermudes now worries her daughter’s life will be in danger and that she will have no one to help her raise a newborn.
“There is no family waiting for her,” Santiago Bermudes said. “She’s going back to an empty life with no one there to give her a hand.”
The situation has been particularly hard on Centeno Santiago’s 11-year-old daughter, who recently graduated from fifth grade without her mother and recently recorded a video of herself crying and saying, “I can’t do this anymore.”
But the family is also very concerned about the mother’s health inside the detention center. Jennifer Pacheco, a family friend who spoke with Centeno Santiago on Monday, said that by 1 p.m. the mother had still not been given breakfast and that the guards were refusing to serve her the fruits and vegetables she needed for a healthy diet.
“I’m scared for her,” said Pacheco. “She’s pregnant and she’s not being treated the right way.”
Ziesemer is hoping that on Tuesday, a judge will allow Centeno Santiago to stay in the U.S. so that she gets a fair chance to appeal her deportation order.
She says it’s unfair that the government would rip a family apart because she didn’t receive a piece of paper telling her when to show up in court.
“We should all be looking at the policies in place about how we treat and detain immigrants in ‘civil detention centers,’” she said. “It’s a total farce.”