Saturday, August 09, 2008

Mother and Baby subjected to Inhumane Treatment

by David Morales

Maybe some of you are aware, thanks to an article published Monday, August 4, in the Tennessean, of the plight of Juana Villegas, an undocumented Mexican national that was pulled over on July 3 for a minor traffic violation in the city of Berry Hill. Berry Hill is a small "satellite" city within Metropolitan Nashville-Davidson County and has its own police force. Because Mrs. Villegas did not have a license, the officer kept her there with her three children for an hour until a relative arrived to drive the vehicle home.

At that moment, the officer arrested her. He told her that she had "two seconds to say goodbye to her children", arrested her in front of them, and then delivered her to the Sheriff's office, where she was researched and found to be undocumented, at which time an immigration hold was placed on her.

Sadly, the story is typical of what has been happening since May of last year, during which time more than 3,500 foreign nationals have been processed by the Sheriff's department for deportation, mostly for minor offenses. What has made this case unique, and at this point, a national and international story, is that she was 9 months pregnant and 3 day from delivery. The Berry Hill officer, Sgt. Tim Coleman, was aware of this fact, and even though she presented her vehicle registration and a consular ID from the Mexican government, he decided to arrest her, instead of citing her. According to Chief Serpas, the guidelines for Metro police are that proof of ID such as what Mrs. Villegas presented is sufficient to issue a citation and not arrest the person. Metro Police Department was also very quick to issue a statement that they are in no way related to the Berry Hill Police Department.

Also aware that Mrs Vallegas was pregnant was the Sheriff's office. Nevertheless, she was held in detention due to her immigration status, even though the policy of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is, for humanitarian reasons, not to detain people in her situation, but rather cite them for immigration proceedings.

Mrs. Villegas water broke on July 5, around 10:00 PM, and she was taken about an hour later to Nashville General Hospital. There, she was forced to undress in front of the deputy (a male) and was shackled by the arm and the leg until the delivery started. Soon after delivery, she was shackled again, and spent the rest of her recovery time at the hospital like this. Even to use the toilet and clean up, she was shackled from both ankles. She was not allowed to speak to her husband and the room phone was disconnected. Her husband was not informed of the birth, and only found out when he was told to come and pick up the baby, because the mother was being taken back to jail. He was not allowed to see her, even at this moment.

At this time, about to head back to jail and separated from her child, the nurses at Nashville General gave her a breast pump, but the deputies did not allow her to use it or take it. Throughout the ordeal, nurses felt so helpless about the situation that they repeatedly found themselves in tears. She was returned to a shared cell, where her pleas for pain medication were ignored. (Those who know say that engorged breasts are horrendously painful.) She developed a breast infection, while her child, separated from her, became jaundiced due to a very high bilirubin level of 14. In layman terms, the baby's liver was failing, due to the lack of her mother's milk. Mrs. Villegas was finally released eight days after her detention, at 3:00 AM, as soon as ICE took over her custody from the Sheriff. ICE released her for humanitarian reasons, although she currently remains in deportation proceedings.

Sgt. Coleman never told Mrs. Villegas why she was pulled over. His report only states "careless driving", without giving details, and she was not even charged for that. Neither Sgt. Coleman nor the Sheriff's office notified her of her rights, and specifically of her right to speak to her consulate, a right guaranteed under international treaties the United States has signed. Berry Hill's police chief, Robert Bennett, has stated that his officer "followed proper procedure". Ditto the Sheriff's department,which added that what Mrs. Villegas went through is standard procedure for all women in her situation that are in their custody.

It is a huge mistake to allow state and local law enforcement to get involved in immigration issues. The Sheriff has been exercising his immigration authority since April of last year under the 287(g) program. The results, we are now seeing, are abuses like this, committed against vulnerable people that have not committed a crime, but a misdemeanor. Nothing justifies the torture Mrs. Villegas and her baby suffered. We are supposed to be a country of laws and a country that does not torture. Mrs. Villegas human rights were violated and she and her baby were subject to torture that put their health in danger.

If you feel as outraged as I and everybody in the immigrant community does, please contact the Sheriff's office, Mayor Dean's office and Representative Cooper's office. They all bear the responsibility for this situation. Please ask them to start applying the 287(g) program for what it was intended (and for what Sheriff Hall promised when he was seeking approval for the program), catching felons and dangerous criminals. As he has been applying it, it has been a huge dragnet that makes no distinction between people that are only guilty of the misdemeanor infraction of "unlawful presence" and the dangerous criminals the program was supposed to help deport. So far, very few of these dangerous criminals have been caught, and thousands of people that have not committed a crime, including more than 1,500 very legal immigrants, have fallen in its grip.

David Morales is the most talented translator and interpreter in Nashville, often called upon to translate technical, medical, and legal documents. He is a also a part-time housing counselor with the Woodbine Community Organization, serving our Spanish speaking clients. Rod

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  1. This case parallels a similar episode that occurred in south Texas about a year ago. A young boy who needed emergency medical care, was denied necessary treatment by hospitals and physicians.

    One physician, a colleague of mine, stepped forward and cared for the child. He came to me later and said, "you need to write about this." He had read some of my previous novels.

    He planted the idea in my mind for THE IMMIGRANT, my recently published novel. Your blog is classic in that this same inhumane treatment is happening all over the country.


  2. Still...if she wasn't here illegally to begin with..she would not have been in this situation.

    Sorry - I don't have any sympathy for anyone who breaks the law from the outset.

    Sure - the sheriff's office may be out of step a bit..but..again..just to reiterate...had she been here legally - there wouldn't have been any problems with overzealous local police.

  3. hey Rod, it's will from regarding liberty... im slowly moving over to can you add that site to your blogroll by any chance?



  4. Ommitted facts:
    1: She was ordered deported back in 1996.
    2: She deliberately ignored the deportation order.
    3: She chose to stay in this country illegally long enough to deliver four anchor babies.
    4: She, technically, has been running from from the law from the very beginning when she refused to leave when ordered, therefore an immigration fugitive, subject to arrest.

    Is this fair to all the legal Latinos, (Hispanic, Mexicans, etc.) who have jumped through all
    the hoops and payed thousands of dollars to do the right thing? How about all the ones who have made a conscious decision to wait their turn? Do you not think it is hurting them and their families seeing what illegals are getting away with, while they wait in line?

    Maybe her "rights" WERE violated; but if she had been here legally, she would have been fully aware of what those rights were.
    Most Americans DO respect immigrants, no matter what nationality, who come here and live by the same rules all citizens are expected to live by.

  5. This could have been handled a lot better, but at the same time when you break the law, your put yourself in the hands of the system, not of caring individuals.

    My wife and I suffered a one year separation as we went through the process of applying for her visa. Not to mention, countless thousands of dollars. So I don't have much sympathy for someone who tries to cheat the system. My sister-in-law is another example. We could smuggle her in, but instead she is working on the education, training, and process it will take to make her legal.

    However, that said- anyone who has traveled the world and seen conditions some of these people live in would understand that for them its not a choice, its a matter of life and death. And if it comes to saving your children from starving, most people would do whatever it takes, including sneaking across borders and ignoring the law.

    So unless you've lived there, don't demonize them. Instead, enforce the law in as compassionate a way as possible. Unless you are red skinned and smoking a peace pipe- you are the result of immigrants as well, and chances are they came here illegally as well.

  6. I do agree that this could have been handled more humanely. This program is new to law enforcement and more education for the officers is surely needed. I'm sure that with the number of illegals, they're going to deal with, they'll get more experience in handling cases like this.

    When immigrants came here during the "red skinned-peace pipe smoking" days, there were no immigration laws on the books, so it was impossible for them to come here "illegally".

    BTW, when this story first broke, it was reported that she ignored the deportation order, and stayed, but now it's said she left and came back(?).