Driving While Pregnant, Immigrant Lands Woman In Jail

Rachel Roth

A number of local and county police departments are now allowed to arrest people for immigration violations. In Tennessee, a pregnant, undocumented immigrant woman was arrested for driving without a license and gave birth, mostly shackled, in jail focusing new attention on local immigration enforcement.

"There is a perception that she was treated different from other inmates, and it just is not true."

So says Karla Weikal, a spokeswoman for the Davidson County Sheriff’s Office in Nashville, Tennessee, where a pregnant woman, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, was recently arrested and jailed for the misdemeanor of driving without a license, and subsequently gave birth in custody.

The spokeswoman’s statement is both true and more complicated than it appears: on the one hand, Juana Villegas DeLaPaz was treated just like other pregnant women in jail or prison; on the other hand, she was treated differently from other people who drive without a license because of a special agreement between the Nashville police and the U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Let’s unpack the spokeswoman’s statement further. A number of local and county police departments have entered into agreements which allow them to arrest people for immigration violations, a power that otherwise rests solely with the federal government. Many jurisdictions have rejected this approach, because they are concerned that if the local police are acting as "La Migra," immigrants may be reluctant to report crimes that they experience or witness, making communities less safe for everyone. Fear of the police poses a special problem for women who are victims of domestic violence, particularly when their husbands or partners are U.S. citizens or legal residents and use the threat of deportation as an additional weapon against them.

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In Tennessee, driving without a license is a misdemeanor, usually resulting in nothing more than a citation. (The state stopped issuing drivers licenses to undocumented immigrants in early 2006. This issue figured prominently during the Democratic primary debates.) According to local attorneys, Villegas DeLaPaz would not have been arrested but for the local immigration policing program, because she had other identification as well as car registration papers. Once she was arrested, an immigration officer working in the police station found that she had been deported back in 1996 and issued an order to take over her case when local authorities released her. This pending immigration charge automatically made her a medium-security prisoner.

Juana Villegas DeLaPaz was arrested, nine months pregnant, on July 3. She went into labor the night of July 5. She was taken in handcuffs from jail to the hospital, where her ankle and wrist were chained to the bed except for a brief period when she was deemed to be in the final stages of labor and after giving birth. Every trip to the bathroom was made in leg shackles. She was not allowed to use a telephone or even to see her husband when he came to pick up their newborn baby. She was not allowed to take the breast pump offered by the hospital back to jail, and as a result developed a breast infection, all the while her baby went without breast milk.

These details are common to women giving birth in custody, regardless of immigration or security status. So, too, are problems with post-partum needs. Many jails do not allow "contact visits" where a woman can hold and nurse her infant, instead requiring people to be separated by partitions. As a practical matter, a woman would have to have access to a breast pump and refrigeration, be jailed close to home, and have someone willing and able to come to the jail on a regular basis, in order to provide breast milk to her infant – assuming the jail would even allow this. Like Villegas DeLaPaz, other women have reported to human rights investigators and researchers that they did not receive any kind of medication to "dry up" their breast milk when they got back to jail or prison. As a consequence, they endured physical pain, infection, and a visceral reminder of their separation from their baby – and the possibility that the separation might become permanent if the baby went into foster care.

Some women have miscarried in police or immigration custody. In one well-publicized case from 2006, a woman from China reported for what she thought was a routine appointment with immigration officials in Philadelphia. Instead, they put her into a van bound for Kennedy International Airport in New York to deport her. All the while, her husband and two children were waiting for her in the lobby. After what she described as rough handling and denial of food, water, and requests for medical attention for abdominal pain, Zhenxing Jiang was eventually taken to a hospital, where doctors determined that she had miscarried the twins she was carrying. In a surprising twist, perhaps stemming from embarrassment at international coverage of the case, the federal government dropped its objection to her request and she was granted political asylum in 2007.

For now, Villegas DeLaPaz is out of jail while her deportation case is pending. She was released in accordance with an ICE policy to allow for humanitarian consideration of the needs of breastfeeding women and their babies. The policy was adopted in late 2007, following public criticism after a Honduran woman living in Ohio was separated from the nine-month-old baby she was nursing. The woman was subsequently deported.

The New York Times observes that this case has focused new attention on local participation in immigration enforcement. It should also focus attention on the vulnerability of all imprisoned women to mistreatment during labor, childbirth, and the postpartum period.

To learn more:

For extensive coverage of Villegas DeLaPaz’ case, see Tim Chavez’s web site Political Salsa. On a more positive note, this story is testament to the power of dedicated individuals to educate, mobilize, and elicit attention from the mainstream press via the Internet.

For a feminist analysis of the relationship between the immigration and criminal justice systems, check out the book Policing the National Body or the report "Whose Safety? Women of Color and the Violence of Law Enforcement" by Anannya Bhattacharjee.

For reports about the conditions in jails and prisons where women seeking asylum are detained, see the web site of the Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children.


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