Posted: 9/21/11 07:39 AM ET
“When I was in bed, I was begging the sheriff, ‘Please let me free — at least one hand,’ and he said, no, he didn’t want to,” Juana Villegas said in an interview with a local Nashville television station. She was describing the experience of being shackled to her hospital bed as she went into labor. Villegas gave birth in the sheriff’s custody, after she was stopped by local police while driving without a valid license.
According to Elliott Ozment, Villegas’s lawyer, driving without a license is generally handled with a citation, not an arrest. He believes Villegas was only brought in because she was an undocumented immigrant.
Like Villegas, Alma Chacon, and Miriam Mendiola-Martinez gave birth in the United States shackled to their hospital beds, without their husbands, and in the presence of a prison guard. They also were not violent criminals, but rather, they were all undocumented and charged with an immigration-related offense in Sheriff Arpaio’s jurisdiction of Maricopa County, Arizona.
Cases such as these have garnered outrage from immigrant rights advocates. Critics take aim at both the legal classification of immigration-related offenses and the standards of prioritizing undocumented mothers’ rights at the state and federal level.
VICTIMS OF A BROKEN SYSTEM
While many immigration violations are civil cases, ICE classifies some undocumented immigrants as criminals when they are apprehended for certain immigration-related offenses. One of those is “re-entry after deportation.”
“To ICE, re-entry after deportation is not an immigration case, that is a criminal case,” explained Michelle Brané, director of the Detention and Asylum program at the Women’s Refugee Commission. “They’ve criminalized being undocumented; the act of entering after being deported is now a crime. You’re in the criminal system, and ICE will say they don’t have any authority over it,” Brané said in a phone interview with HuffPost LatinoVoices.
Although the Bureau of Prisons instituted an anti-shackling policy in federal correctional facilities in 2007, state correctional facilities are still free to shackle inmates before, during and after child delivery if they see fit.
Shackling during childbirth is illegal in 14 states and is against U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) policy. But women being held for immigration-related offenses classified as “criminal offenses” can still legally be handcuffed to their hospital beds by state authorities in the 36 other states. Those women can also be denied the right to have a family member in the birthing room, or to hold their newborns for longer than 24 hours.
Malika Saada Saar, executive director of The Rebecca Project’s Anti-Shackling Coalition, believes that state authorities should take into account the circumstances under which pregnant women with undocumented status are put in behind bars. “These mothers are not prosecuted criminals, but simply mothers detained for lack of documentation,” Saar said in a phone interview.
Miriam Mendiola-Martinez gave birth to a baby boy on Dec. 21, 2010, in Maricopa County, Arizona. She did so chained to her hospital bed and without any family members present. Mendiola-Martinez had been found using false documents in order to obtain work.