Friday, July 25, 2008

The Limits of Human Rights Law

As a nursing mother, the story in Sunday's NY Times of an undocumented immigrant who, nine months pregnant, was jailed after a traffic stop, nearly brought me to tears. For those who didn't see the article, Juana Villegas went into labor in jail, was taken to the hospital in handcuffs, and was cuffed to the bed by one foot until the final stages of her labor. County officers prohibited Ms. Villegas from seeing or speaking with her husband during childbirth, and a sheriff's officer stood guard in her hospital room throughout her labor. She was shackled again six hours after giving birth, compromising her efforts to perform the basic hygiene necessary after childbirth. Two days later, she was sent back to jail without her newborn son; her husband was allowed to pick up the baby but not to speak to or see his wife. A nurse at the hospital tried to give Ms. Villegas a breast pump to take to jail with her, but a sheriff's deputy prohibited her from taking it. Her breasts became infected and her infant developed jaundice. Her crime? None; she was driving without a license and had returned to the United States after a prior deportation.
When I told my husband, a Latino immigrant, this story, he looked visibly shaken and asked me not to share my human rights stories with him right before bedtime. A powerful article by Jane Guskin describes how the nurses at Ms. Villegas' bedside cried when the sheriff's deputy refused to remove her shackles, and lists other tales of tears shed over the treatment of immigrants in the United States, from the separation of families (described here) to

strip searches and genital and anal cavity inspections following meetings with attorneys; detainees affected by an outbreak of food poisoning were denied medical treatment for many hours; a group of detainees transferred out of the facility by plane to Alabama -- to clear room there for workers arrested in a raid -- were refused access to the bathroom and were forced to sit in their own
excrement for the duration of the flight.

What is your gut reaction to these descriptions? Most readers, I would imagine, respond compassionately, as me, my husband, nurses, community leaders, attorneys, church staff and volunteers have done in the face of these human rights abuses. Viewing immigrants as humans, as one of us, we tear up with empathy at these depictions of human suffering. My burning question of the day, then, is to understand the mental gymnastics that enable officials to justify such mistreatment of those who have committed no crime. What allows someone to coolly stand guard while a nursing mother is separated from her newborn? To watch indifferently as other humans sit in their own excrement? It is only by understanding this mindset that we will be able to change it -- but is human rights law up to the task? In my most recent article, I argue that human rights law should be used in immigration enforcement agencies to create an institutional culture that values individual rights. Can law create compassion? Perhaps, as Lesley Wexler argues, it can simply humanize immigrants in the eyes of officials, which may be the first step. We can only hope.

No comments: