Pregnant immigrant shackled during labor may get visa

Woman pulled over, arrested when 9 months pregnant

(CNN) -  

An undocumented immigrant who was shackled during labor will be allowed to seek legal status under a special visa that can be conferred to crime victims, a federal judge ruled this week.

Juana Villegas, who previously won $200,000 in a lawsuit against the Tennessee sheriff's office involved in the incident, was also awarded $1.1 million in lawyers' fees and other expenses.

"It's a big victory for Mrs. Villegas," said Elliott Ozment, her attorney, about the Thursday ruling from U.S. District Judge William Haynes Jr.


Ozment said his client -- a Mexican national -- will pursue a U-visa, a status that can be given to victims of crimes who are in the country illegally. The final decision rests with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Karen West, a spokeswoman for the Davidson County Sheriff's Office stressed the ruling may not be the last word.

"We disagree that she (Villegas) was a victim and the certification is not a resolution of the case, which is still being appealed," she said.

Villegas' story began on July 3, 2008, when she was nine months pregnant and driving home with her other children from a doctor's appointment in metro Nashville, Tennessee.

A police officer pulled her over and, according to Villegas' complaint, decided to arrest her for driving without a license because the officer suspected she was in the country illegally. The decision to arrest her was influenced by a controversial agreement between the police department and the federal government that allowed local officers to help enforce immigration laws, known as section 287(g) of the Immigration and Nationality Act.

She was transported to a detention center, where two days later, she went into labor.

According to court documents, Villegas was taken to Nashville General Hospital where she was placed on a gurney with her hands and feet shackled.

Once in her hospital room, two Davidson County sheriff's deputies refused to leave the room while she changed into her hospital gown, and unplugged her phone so she couldn't alert her husband about her labor, court documents say.

Afterwards, one of the deputies shackled her left foot and right hand to the hospital bed, something that the medical staff called a "barbaric" violation of medical standards, court records state. The shackles were removed before she delivered the baby.

After she had delivered the baby, and against doctor's orders, a third deputy shackled her to the bed again, according to the court documents.

The sheriff's department's policies that led the deputies to shackle her throughout the ordeal were a violation of the U.S. and Tennessee constitutions, her lawyers argued. The sheriff's office said its deputies followed established procedures and accepted practices.

Early last year, Judge Haynes ruled in favor of Villegas, and after a three-day trial in August, the jury set the $200,000 award.

Villegas had once been deported from San Diego and returned illegally to the United States, and had lived here for years, her lawyer said. At the time of her arrest, her eldest son was 14, and he had been born in the United States. Villegas is married with five children.