|Advocates for pregnant immigrants speak out|
Updated Aug. 19, 2011:
A jury awarded Juana Villegas $200,000 for violations of her rights
when deputies shackled her during labor and postpartum recovery in 2008.
Her attorney, Philip Cramer, a member of Belmont United Methodist
Church, asked for $1.2 million. The sheriff in the case said he plans to
appeal. “As painful as reliving the events today and for this trial has
been for Juana, justice has been done, and she will be able to receive
some of the treatment that she needs,” said Cramer after the
announcement Aug. 18. Nashville’s Justice for Our Neighbors, a United
Methodist program that offers free legal advice to immigrants, has been
involved in the case from the start.
Juana Villegas recalls her experience of being
arrested for a minor traffic violation in Nashville, Tenn., while she
was nine months pregnant. UMNS photos by Mike DuBose.
By Kathy L. Gilbert and Amanda Bachus*
July 29, 2008 | NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS)
Juana Villegas’ trip to the doctor for a prenatal visit became a
nightmare when, at nine months pregnant, she was stopped for a minor
traffic violation, jailed and ended up giving birth to her son with two
sheriff’s deputies standing guard.
An illegal immigrant from Mexico, she recalled her childbirth experience
of July 6 when local authorities prevented her from calling her husband
after going into labor and then separated her from her nursing newborn
for two days after his birth.
"I don't want to talk about this, I don't want to remember," she told
United Methodist News Service. "But I want to tell my story for all
women. I didn't deserve this, and I don't wish for it to happen to
Villegas' story gained national attention after advocates for immigrants
began circulating e-mails about her arrest. The advocates included
members of Belmont United Methodist Church, which have united with
Hillcrest United Methodist Church to form a Justice for Our Neighbors
(JFON) program. Together, they operate a legal clinic in Nashville for
"We must step forward and shout to the rooftops a wrong has been
committed," said Katherine Dix Esquivel, a Belmont church member and
local JFON leader. "The suffering for her, her newborn, her husband and
her family was unnecessary and cruel."
Local authorities, however, insisted that they followed protocol in the
case, and noted that Villegas had been deported from the United States
in 1996, only to return and give birth to three of her four
children––all of whom are U.S. citizens.
Villegas, 33, was stopped on July 3 for driving "carelessly." She was
arrested and jailed when she could not produce a driver's license and
presented a vehicle registration that was registered to another person.
Her three children––ages 14, 12 and 2––were with her during her arrest
by police in Berry Hill, a bedroom community of Nashville.
A night court commissioner reviewed the case and sent her to jail after a
background check showed she previously had been deported.
Villegas went into labor on the night of July 5 and was taken to
Nashville General Hospital, where she was handcuffed to the bed by her
right wrist and left ankle until two hours before her son, Gael, was
born on July 6. Six hours after the birth, she was shackled again, and a
guard was with her at all times. Villegas returned to jail July 8 and
was not allowed to take a breast pump, causing her breasts to become
infected, according to her attorney. She did not see her baby again
until her release on July 10.
'A very bad situation'
Speaking in Spanish, Villegas was interviewed by UMNS on July 24 in her lawyer's office while 3-week-old Gael slept peacefully.
Through her tears, Villegas struggled to describe her feelings about her
experience that included being guarded by two male sheriff's deputies
during her two-hour labor.
“I was treated like a criminal, and I didn't understand why I was being treated like that.”"I wanted to call my
family, but they said no and disconnected the phone," she said. "This
was the fastest labor and delivery I have had. I have other children and
was in labor for six to eight hours. I believe the quick delivery was
brought on by the stress I was under."
She called her treatment "a very bad situation" that no one should have
to go through. "I was treated like a criminal, and I didn't understand
why I was being treated like that," she said.
Villegas came to the United States 14 years ago in search of a job and
said she worked at a fast-food restaurant at one point. She lived in
California for 10 years before moving to Nashville four years ago.
Nashville immigration attorney Elliott Ozment is working to keep
Villegas from being deported and is considering legal action against
local authorities. A hearing on the traffic violation is scheduled for
Aug. 15 in Berry Hill Municipal Court.
Villegas holds her
3-week-old son, Gael.
Berry Hill Police Chief Robert Bennett said the arresting officer
"followed proper procedure" and arrested Villegas after making "the
determination that a reasonable likelihood existed that she would fail
to appear in court."
Davidson County Sheriff Daron Hall said his department frequently has
pregnant women in custody and that Villegas was not treated differently
from others who are classified as medium-security inmates. He said she
received this classification because she had been charged locally and
was found to be wanted by the federal government.
"An important factor in this case is that this woman had been previously
deported from this country and she ignored that order and came back.
Federal immigration authorities don't look lightly on this," Hall
Questioning the system
The United Methodist Church seeks justice for migrants worldwide and a
reform of U.S. immigration laws that includes a pathway to gain legal
status. The church also advocates for government policies that keep
Advocates for immigration reform said the Villegas case holds up a
mirror to flaws in U.S. immigration law and procedures––and the need for
the church to advocate for change.
"What happened to Juana just highlights we are not living up to our
calling as Christians," said David Esquivel, also a member of Belmont
United Methodist Church. "I don't think as a church the documentation
status of anyone ought to be a dividing line. I see that the church has a
witness on this issue."
“As Christians, we bear responsibility for what happened to Juana if we stand back and do and say nothing.”–Katherine Dix Esquivel
Justice For Our Neighbors is a network in mission of the United
Methodist Committee on Relief, along with the denomination's annual
conferences, local congregations and ecumenical partners. The United
Methodist Board of Global Ministries launched JFON in 1999 as a response
to increasingly complex immigration regulations stemming from the U.S.
immigration law of 1996, which brought harsher policies for illegal
JFON is among faith groups that plan to stand in support for Villegas during her Aug. 15 court appearance.
"As Christians, we bear responsibility for what happened to Juana if we
stand back and do and say nothing," said Katherine Dix Esquivel.
"As citizens, we should hold our representatives accountable for passing
comprehensive immigration reform on the federal level. We should also
hold our local, state, and federal officials and representatives
accountable for treating the immigrants in our communities with dignity
*Gilbert is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in
Nashville, Tenn. Bachus is director of Spanish Resources and editor of el Intérprete magazine, United Methodist Communications.
News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Video Interview with Juana Villegas
“I was treated like a criminal and I didn’t understand why.”
“Fui tratada como una criminal y no sabía por qué”.
“I don’t want this to happen to anybody.”
“No quiero que nadie tenga que pasar por lo mismo”.
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