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Illegal immigrant’s case shows need for policy changes, say her supporters

Juana Villegas, accompanied by attorney Elliot Ozment (left) and Irving Vidal of the Mexican Consulate in Atlanta, waits for her case to be heard in traffic court in Berry Hill, Tenn. UMNS photos by Mike DuBose.

By Jan Read*
Aug. 18, 2008 | NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS)

Jailed on minor traffic violations at nine months pregnant, Juana Villegas had to deliver her baby after being shackled to a hospital bed and without her husband present.

On Aug. 15, as Villegas continued the ordeal that may end with her deportation, United Methodists in Middle Tennessee crowded into a small Nashville-area courtroom to protest her treatment by local authorities. The judge later dismissed one of two misdemeanor charges against her.

"I'm here to show my support for Juana specifically and immigrants overall," said the Rev. Pat Smith, chairperson of the Committee on Church and Society of the United Methodist Tennessee Annual (regional) Conference.

Villegas, 33, listens to the translation of testimony against her by Berry Hill police Sgt. Tim Coleman (foreground).

"Social justice is important as a Christian. How does our faith respond to this?"

Villegas, 33, is in the United States illegally, but her supporters said that violation does not justify the treatment she received following her July 3 arrest on misdemeanor traffic charges. Her three U.S.-born children—ages 14, 12 and 2—were with her when she was stopped in the Nashville bedroom community of Berry Hill and charged with careless driving and driving without a license or auto insurance.

Two days after being jailed, Villegas went into labor and was taken to a local hospital where she was shackled to the hospital bed before and after her son's birth. She was not permitted to call her husband, and deputies were on guard in her room. Authorities did not allow her to bring a breast pump when she was returned to jail and separated from her newborn until her release on July 10.

Villegas' case has garnered national attention and prompted a representative from the Atlanta-based Mexican Consulate to attend Villegas' traffic hearing.

The hearing in Berry Hill City Hall was packed, with social advocates from The United Methodist Church and its ministries making up about half of the 75 attendees. The supporters said they came because all people should be treated with respect and dignity.

"Jesus sided with the marginalized. We have to take care of those who can’t speak for themselves," said the Rev. Barbara Garcia of Hillcrest United Methodist Church.

The Rev. Judi Hoffman of Edgehill United Methodist Church, agreed. "This is my city, these are my neighbors. I live here. I don’t want to treat my neighbors this way."

Questioning the system

Villegas’ supporters cited concerns about the federal 287g program, which allows trained deputies to screen foreign-born inmates and pass information along to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Davidson County Sheriff Daron Hall has supported the program for 16 months and, in a recent newspaper editorial, pointed out that more than 3,500 people have been removed from Nashville under the program. However, the program's detractors say that 287g, which is designed to remove criminal elements from the community, has been applied too broadly.

"We want to shine a light on 287g," said Nashville attorney A. Gregory Ramos, an advocate for the Latino community. "The anti-immigrant fervor is so intense that now common sense is left on the doorstep. People have a right to be treated with dignity and respect."

United Methodists are circulating a petition asking Hall and Berry Hill Police Chief Robert Bennett to reform their procedures for handling misdemeanors by writing citations instead of making arrests. The petition also asks the sheriff to review childbirth procedures for women in custody.

"We’re hoping to get several hundred signatures," said Nashville attorney David Esquivel, an organizer with Justice For Our Neighbors. "We want to highlight the injustice of 287g. We believe the focus is wrong."

Justice For Our Neighbors is a program of the United Methodist Committee on Relief which began in 1999 because of increasingly complex U.S. immigration regulations. Several Nashville area United Methodist churches assist JFON's legal clinic in Nashville for immigrants.

'I was treated like a criminal'

Through lawyer Elliot Ozment, Villegas pleaded innocent to charges of careless driving and driving without insurance. Judge Larry Cantrell cited an error on the citation in dismissing the careless driving charge. He found her guilty of the second violation and ordered her to pay a $10 fine. On July 10, at the end of her incarceration, Villegas had pleaded guilty to the driver's license charge and was sentenced to time served.

During the two-hour hearing on Aug. 15, Ozment quizzed Berry Hill Sgt. Timothy Coleman, the arresting officer, about the specifics of the traffic stop.

Advocates for immigrants have said the Villegas case reflects an undercurrent of bias against immigrants and possible racial profiling by authorities. Cantrell would not allow Ozment to pursue that line of questioning, however.

Local officials have maintained that their officers followed protocol in the case and noted that Villegas had been deported from the United States in 1996, only to return. They also have maintained that Villegas was not treated differently from other pregnant women classified as medium-security inmates.

A supporter hugs Villegas,
following her court hearing.

Villegas, who speaks little English, did not testify during the hearing but, in a July 24 interview with United Methodist News Service, said through a translator that she would never wish the experience on anyone. "I was treated like a criminal," she said through her tears, "and I didn't understand why I was being treated like that."

Villegas, who migrated from Mexico in 1994 in search of a job, still faces deportation proceedings under the 287g program. Her legal options include appealing her traffic stop, filing civil lawsuits against the Berry Hill Police Department and the Davidson County Sheriff’s Department and filing a federal human rights lawsuit. Lawyers involved in the case said they are exploring their options.

The church and society committee’s Smith, who is also associate pastor at Rehoboth United Methodist Church in nearby Gallatin, wants to see the government develop a "realistic" pathway to citizenship. "(Immigration) is a very complex issue," she said. "We have to do more than listen to the loudest voices on each side. If we don’t talk to each other, we’ll never find the answer."

The committee recently issued a statement in the Villegas’ case, quoting the denomination's Social Principles that "we … work toward societies in which each person’s value is recognized, maintained and strengthened."

The statement continues: "We are outraged and heartbroken for the treatment of Juana at the hands of the officers who were involved. … We urge our communities across the state to grieve with us and respond in prayer and political action to work towards repair and reform of the immigration laws of our state and nation. The laws of our state and nation must have a face of compassion and/or respect of human dignity. The majority of immigrants who come to this country come to prosper, to make good lives for their families."

*Read is a freelance writer based in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Marta Aldrich, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.


The Rev. Barbara P. Garcia: “There’s a lot of fear among the community, but building relationships can help to take away that fear.”

The Rev. Judi Hoffman: “My faith tells me she’s my neighbor.”

The Rev. Pat Smith: “I hope it will make people think about our laws.”

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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Justice for Our Neighbors

Immigrants in the United States: Ministries of Hospitality, Advocacy, and Justice

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*InfoServ ( about ) is a ministry of United Methodist Communications located in Nashville, Tennessee, USA. 1-800-251-8140

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