Galiema Begg did not get to attend her infant son's funeral.
The South African woman sat in the Niagara County Jail while the 8-month-old boy, Mohamed Hadi Begg, was buried Wednesday, near the Miami home of the grandparents he never got to meet.
On Thursday, authorities tried to deal with her tragic and complicated immigration case. Ms. Begg, 30, of South Africa, and two relatives were arrested last week after the baby died during a smuggling attempt at the Rainbow Bridge in Niagara Falls.
"I don't know why they keep me. I have no politics," Ms. Begg wailed to relatives in the courtroom. "South Africa's not my country. America's not my country. Then where?"
Her attorney, Rodney O. Personius, said he is trying to work out a compassionate plea deal on Ms. Begg's case with the U.S. attorney's office.
"There are a lot of things she is trying to come to grips with right now. She's living a nightmare," Personius said after a brief appearance before U.S. Magistrate Judge Carol E. Heckman.
"Her son apparently died as he was suckling her breast, while she was hugging him, as they tried to cross the border," Personius said. "Authorities at the bridge took the baby off her, and she never got to see him again. She didn't get to go to her own son's funeral because she was in jail."
A network news crew from South African television attended the court proceeding.
Authorities have called the incident the tragic result of an illegal attempt to smuggle aliens into the United States. Because the smuggling attempt resulted in a death, authorities said the three South Africans will be lucky to avoid prison terms, much less being allowed to remain in the United States.
Police arrested Ms. Begg, her brother Achmat Begg, 31, and their uncle, Mohamad Tahir Toffie, 57, at the bridge on the evening of March 19, after the baby died.
The son was smothered while he and his mother were hiding under blankets and clothes in the back of a Ford Explorer that was entering the United States. Achmat Begg, who runs a business in Miami, was planning to drive his sister and her baby to Miami, so they could be with her parents.
The Niagara County coroner, James Joyce, said after an autopsy that the death appears to have been an accident.
Achmat Begg's lawyer, Daniel C. Oliverio, said he hopes federal prosecutors and immigration officials will ultimately show some compassion for the family and their
loss. He said that, in his opinion, it would be wrong to make them spend time in prison for their actions.
Oliverio said he believes the South Africans are being prosecuted under a law designed to punish members organized crime rings that charge illegal aliens tens of thousands of dollars to be smuggled into the U.S.
"Clearly there was no motive here for profit or criminal activity," Oliverio said. "The motive here was bringing that baby down to Miami, so his grandparents could see him."
The consequences of arrest could be especially hard on his client, Oliverio said.
"Achmat Begg runs a successful cabinet-making company in Miami. He is a legal, permanent U.S. resident. His wife and his 2-year-old son are both American citizens," Oliverio said. "It would be really tragic if he had to leave this country because he tried to help his sister."
According to her family, Ms. Begg has suffered from emotional problems in the past and had been distraught because she was unable to get a visa to visit her family in Miami. At times since her arrest, Ms. Begg has been on a suicide watch at the jail, law enforcement officials said.
"Because of their strict Muslim religious beliefs, she and her family were also extremely ashamed and embarrassed that she had a baby out of wedlock," Personius said. "This is one aspect of this case that has been largely overlooked."
U.S. Attorney Denise O'Donnell said she and immigration authorities are taking a close look at all aspects of the case. She said that, in her view, authorities have little choice but to prosecute the case, because a baby died in the incident.
"People in my office and the immigration service are trying to deal with this case with as much sensitivity as possible," Ms. O'Donnell said. "It is a very sad case. I do think there's some room for compassion in this case, but different people may have different ideas on what compassion means."