GT Pro Bono Team, Along with Rapid Defense Network and NYLAG, Help Free Pregnant Immigrant Mom

Global law firm Greenberg Traurig, LLP, as pro bono co-counsel with New York Legal Assistance Group (NYLAG) and Rapid Defense Network(RDN, formerly NSC Community Legal Defense), helped obtain the release from detention of Alma Centeno Santiago, a pregnant woman with 2 United States citizen children who had been detained in Bergen County Jail since April of 2019 pending deportation under a disputed Final Order of Removal.

“Alma was returned to New York, released without bond, and allowed to stay here pending her appeals from the denial of her motion to reopen the immigration case. This is a huge win. I am proud of the partnership between Greenberg Traurig, RDN and NYLAG to achieve this incredible result for Alma,” said Caroline J. Hellerlitigation shareholder and chair of Greenberg Traurig’s Global Pro Bono Program.

Alma’s emotional meeting with her family at the airport can be viewed here. News coverage of the case can be found here.

Alma came to the United States in 2004 at the age of 18. She fled Guatemala for her safety. Alma was apprehended upon her entry to the U.S. in 2004 and released on her own recognizance to reunite with her older brother in New York. She never received notice regarding any hearing – despite having been released by the government to reunite with her brother in New York. The Immigration Court in San Antonio, Texas held a removal hearing on her case on December 28, 2004. Alma received no notice of that hearing in any form whatsoever. The Immigration Court ordered Alma removed in absentia. Over the next 14 years, Alma gave birth to 2 children, who are United States citizens. Alma did not know that she had a Final Order of Removal until ICE apprehended her in April of 2019 without any prior notice or warning after she appeared in court relating to family issues involving her former partner. Alma immediately sought to move to reopen her immigration removal proceedings. The Immigration Judge denied the motion and Alma filed a timely appeal with the Board of Immigration Appeals. While in detention at the Bergen County Jail, Alma advocated for her health and that of her unborn child and, allegedly in retaliation, was placed into immediate deportation.

On June 25, 2019, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) transported Alma to the LaSalle Processing Center in Jena, Louisiana with plans to remove her from the U.S. the following day. That same day, NYLAG and RDN filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus and obtained a temporary order from the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York restraining ICE from removing Alma from the U.S. pending a hearing on the matter, which was scheduled for July 2, 2019. Greenberg Traurig joined the team the following day.

Over the course of the next few days, a Greenberg Traurig team that included Heller, Ashley A. LeBlanc, and two New York office summer associates, Blake Bailus and Michael Pickett, worked around-the-clock with NYLAG and RDN to prepare an Amended Petition, reply to the government’s response, request discovery, and prepare for the hearing. 

“On Tuesday morning, hours before the hearing, Judge Carter held a conference call and told us that he wanted to give the government a chance to respond to our Amended Petition and requests for discovery, and he set a briefing schedule and rescheduled the hearing,” Heller said. “On Wednesday, July 3, we were informed by the government’s attorneys that ICE was returning Alma to New York and would allow her to live with her family pending resolution of her immigration case. We are grateful for everyone who had a part in making this happen.”

“We are so grateful to Greenberg Traurig for their support and expertise in what was a very tricky and difficult case,” said Jodi Ziesemer, Director of NYLAG’s Immigrant Protection Unit. “Now, Alma can remain in the United States, with her young children, while seeking the due process she is fighting for. Alma’s case highlights how immigrants’ rights are too often violated, and lawyers at NYLAG, RDN, and Greenberg Traurig refused to let that happen to Alma.”

About Greenberg Traurig’s Pro Bono Program: Greenberg Traurig lawyers across the firm provide pro bono legal services to the indigent and working poor, as well as to numerous civic and charitable organizations dedicated to assisting them. The firm focuses its resources on specialized and interrelated issues including civil rights and affirmative action, anti-human trafficking, family law matters, criminal appeals, immigration and political asylum, housing, and homelessness.

About Greenberg Traurig, LLP: Greenberg Traurig, LLP (GT) has more than 2100 attorneys in 41 offices in the United States, Latin America, Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. GT has been recognized for its philanthropic giving, diversity, and innovation, and is consistently among the largest firms in the U.S. on the Law360 400 and among the Top 20 on the Am Law Global 100. Web: www.gtlaw.com; Twitter: @GT_Law

Gregory Copeland