|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)
"Social justice is important as a Christian. How does our faith respond to this?"
Villegas, 33, listens to the translation of testimony
against her by Berry Hill police Sgt. Tim Coleman (foreground).
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
"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
"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
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
During the two-hour hearing on Aug. 15, Ozment quizzed Berry Hill Sgt.
Timothy Coleman, the arresting officer, about the specifics of the
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
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
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."
A supporter hugs Villegas,
following her court hearing.
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.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”.
Immigration Raid Response
Traffic citation against immigrant dismissed
Advocates for immigrants speak out against treatment of pregnant woman
Church leaders support sanctuary for immigrants
Church urges humane treatment of immigrants
Churches help families left behind after raids
Arrest of mother puts 'human face' on immigration
Justice for Our Neighbors
Immigrants in the United States: Ministries of Hospitality, Advocacy, and Justice