Immigration

Illegal Versus Inhumane: Unauthorized Immigrant Shackled While in Labor; Can't Feed Newborn

An undocumented pregnant woman faces the horror and neglect of the U.S. justice system ... giving birth only to have her child stripped from her.
JUANA VILLEGAS is a Mexican immigrant who broke federal law. As The New York Times recently reported, she was deported in 1996, but she returned illegally to the United States. What is more troubling, however, is what happened to her in custody of law enforcement this month. Overzealous use of the law trampled decency.

On July 3, Villegas, nine months pregnant, was pulled over in a Nashville suburb and arrested after admitting that she did not have a license. At the county jail, Villegas's illegal status was discovered by a federal official. That official was there as part of the federal 287(g) program, which trains local police to enforce federal immigration laws.

Two days later, Villegas went into labor. At the hospital her foot was cuffed to the bed, and the cuffs were reportedly removed only for two hours before she gave birth and for six hours after. An officer stood guard in her hospital room.

After she left the hospital, Villegas was held in jail. She could not breastfeed her baby and was not allowed to use a breast pump. She says she developed a breast infection and her baby became jaundiced.

Needless to say, the 287(g) program wasn't intended to snare pregnant women. Rather, it is supposed to help officers "pursue investigations relating to violent crimes, human smuggling, gang/organized crime activity, sexual-related offenses, narcotics smuggling, and money laundering," according to US Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Yet the perceived need for even local officials to crack down on illegal immigrants has become an obstacle to treating people humanely.

Villegas has been released to the custody of her family and faces deportation. Her case shows how much the country needs comprehensive immigration reform that deploys legal resources where they are most needed.