Charlotte – Activists in Tennessee are gathering signatures to demand that a county sheriff apologize to a pregnant Mexican woman who was kept in shackles up to the moment of giving birth.
The Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, or TIRRC, launched an online campaign to get Davidson County Sheriff Daron Hall to admit publicly that his agents' treatment of Juana Villegas was wrong.
Villegas, nine months pregnant, was returning home from a doctor's visit with her three children on July 3, 2008, when a police officer in Nashville stopped her for reckless driving.
The woman was arrested because she had no driver's license and because the officer suspected she was undocumented.
She was taken to a Davidson County jail, which since April 2007 has operated the controversial 287(g) program, which identifies the undocumented with an eye toward deportation.
In reviewing Villegas' record, the sheriff's office discovered that the woman had a deportation order in 1996 and decided to lock her up.
Two days later she was taken, with her hands and feet shackled, to the Nashville General Hospital, where according to court documents, two sheriff's deputies refused to let her even go to the bathroom without being fettered.
Nor would they allow the woman to call her husband, and only took off her shackles just before giving birth to son Gael, now 3.
The U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee ruled in April of this year that the treatment given the immigrant was illegal and unconstitutional.
On Aug. 15, a jury decided that the Davidson County Sheriff's Office must pay $200,000 in compensation to Villegas for the inhuman treatment she had suffered.
"Though we consider that the jury's decision was a victory in the case, it's shameful what happened to Juana. Sheriff Hall should publicly apologize, so that this doesn't happen to somebody else," TIRRC community organizer Leticia Alvarez told Efe.
TIRRC carried out all the procedures of hiring an attorney to represent Villegas, got her medical and psychological care and involved authorities at the Mexican Consulate in Atlanta.
What happened to Villegas caught nationwide media attention and questioned the treatment of pregnant women in Nashville jails, which led to a change of existing policies.
Organizations like TIRRC have long claimed that Hall abuses his power in using 287(g) to process a large number of immigrants and send undocumented migrants to be deported for minor infracions, like fishing without a license.
"It was the only way to set a precedent," Alvarez said. "We want the whole community to participate in this campaign, because with its support we'll send a clear message to other law enforcement agencies that we're watching what they do."
The sheriff's office appealed the decision of the jury, which during the trial was instructed not to take into account Villegas' immigration status.
"Quite frankly, I don't think she was treated inappropriately or unconstitutionally," Hall told the press.
Villegas' attorneys have entered a plea to immigration for a U visa for her as the victim of a crime.