Driving While Pregnant, Immigrant Lands Woman In Jail

"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.

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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  • rachel-walden

    I’ve heard so many people say, "Well, shackling jailed women during labor is standard procedure" – that doesn’t make it right or appropriate. She was also reportedly denied the use of a breast pump after her newborn was taken from her, and requests from nurses to unshackle her to allow her attend to postpartum personal hygiene concerns were denied. Meanwhile, the arresting officer is running for our school board.


    Villegas was stopped by the officer very near my home. I think it’s also important to note that while she could no longer have obtained a driver’s license in our state, she also could not have taken the bus, because the route that serves that clinic/area has been cancelled. So she would have had the choice to either risk driving and eventually being treated as though she deserved no human dignity or to skip care altogether for fear of the same, which is no choice at all.

  • rachel-roth

    Thank you, Rachel, for all of your work on women’s health! While shackling is standard procedure, as you say, that doesn’t make it right — and plenty of medical professionals, including APHA and ACOG, oppose it — as well as international human rights organizations and human rights accords.

    This incident raises many important issues about immigration policy, access to health care, the treatment of women who give birth in custody, and the practice of imprisoning people who pose little risk to public safety.

  • invalid-0

    “Driving While Pregnant, Immigrant Lands Woman In Jail”
    This makes more sense:
    “Driving While Pregnant, Illegal Immigrant Woman Lands In Jail”

    She, technically, has been running from from the law from the very beginning when she refused to leave when ordered, therefore she is an immigration fugitive and likely to do it again. She’s a criminal and all criminals are handcuffed even in a hospital, not just Mexicans.

    This illegal was ORDERED deported back in the 90’s; an order she deliberately refused to obey. She chose to stay in this country long enough to deliver four (count them! 1! 2! 3! 4!!) anchor babies! Try asking yourself, just who paid for those deliveries?

    Is this fair to all the legal Latinos, (Hispanic, Mexicans, etc.) that 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 she is doing and you jump to the aide and ask sympathy for someone who abuses and discredits the reputation of all Latinos? You may not think so, but most Americans DO respect Mexicans who come here and live by the same rules all citizens are expected to live by.

    Time would be better spent changing the “handcuffed while hospitalized” law, which I would agree doesn’t need to be done in a case like this, than portraying this woman as a victim. There’s plenty of security when a prisoner is hospitalized.
    Remember, she is an immigration fugitive.

    • invalid-0


  • invalid-0

    Luckily (and fairly) legal immigration does not cost thousands of dollars, just a couple hundreds. Its main “hoops” are that you need to belong to certain groups. I don’t know these groups by heart, but they have to do with your education (the more, the better, if possible in a sought-after field), with having a fiance(e) and maybe immediate family in the country, or having a specific job (not just tomato fields that need harvesting by anybody willing to sweat for less than minimum wage)waiting for you that cannot be filled with an American applicant. If you don’t belong to any of these groups, or if the quotas for your group are used up for the year, you can jump all you want and cannot get through the hoops. As for shackling any woman during advanced labor, it is unnecessary and therefore cruel. Even if she were hellbound to run, just how far would she get?

  • invalid-0

    You know, I went and signed into ACOG’s website and I was not able to confirm that they have taken a stand on anything in regard to this matter. Can you make an official citation to such reference? I did see some data on studies done over 10-15+ years ago which showed the complicated and high risk nature of women delivering in custody. But what I saw was leaning more toward the fact that these are not the most healthy patients or your optimal maternal population to begin with. SOooooo Don’t Blame all the problems on our judicial system for gawd’s sake! I’m sure there is room for improvement – but keep in mind criminals and sick people to begin with and put some of the owness on those facts.

    To the article author —REPORT THIS: “drying up” breast milk has LONG been abandoned in the Ob-Gyn field. We use to give Parlodel back in the 1980’s (an oral antiprolactin medication)to post partum women to stop breast milk – but evidently this led to STROKES and we have not been giving medications for well over 15 years. We just let patient’s breast milk dry up on its own, and unfortunately they all get the “visceral” effect of a good 3 days of uncomfortable breast engourgement. Some will get mastitis and being in jail isn’t going to cause the breast infection that was going to happen anyway.

    Our society can choose to enforce its laws or allow entropy. You pick – order or disorder. Not everyone can be here – we can barely take care of what we have now let alone taking on more burdens.

  • rachel-roth

    The bottom line is that when the government takes a person into custody, it owes her a certain minimum standard of treatment. In our system, the government’s obligation stems from the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment; you could also find this principle in human rights doctrine or just call it part of the social contract. Ensuring a safe experience of childbirth and adequate postpartum care is part of the government’s obligation to women in jail or prison.


    APHA states that women “must never be shackled during labor or delivery” in its Standards for Health Services in CorrectionalInstitutions; ACOG testified in support of the bill to prohibit such shackling in California. These positions reflect concern for a woman’s dignityas well as the way that shackles interfere with good medical care, including but not only in the case of an emergency.


    Clarification: the reference to medication to dry up breast milk came up in a study of women in three state prisons in the 1990’s, who reported breast problems as part of their postpartum experience. The FDA did ask the manufacturer of Parlodel to stop labeling the drug for this purpose.


    The key point is to be aware that when women are taken from the hospital back to jail or prison, they may not be allowed to pump OR to do any of the things that someone might do for herself at home to ease pain and discomfort, whether using a warm compress, an ice pack, cold cabbage leaves, drinking herbal tea, or even taking an aspirin.


    Learn more about the right to medical care in jail and prison here.


    Review myths & facts about immigration here.

  • invalid-0

    I don’t think laboring women should be shackled at all.
    I’m sure she did jail time before her deportation.
    She knew it could happen again. It appears her four US citizen children were born after the deportation. She probably won’t be deported again with these citizen kids.

    The bottom line here is money. Medicaid, which is half federal and half state money, pays for the days an undocumentation alien spends in the hospital only for delivering a child. If you don’t like that, write your politicians.

    Now, the only reason Medicaid pays is the hospitals whine for payment since they can’t turn her away.

    But, when Davidson County arrested her, county money probably paid for the delivery. I don’t know if they can stick the feds up for payment. So if this costs the county, I doubt it will happen again.