By Joe McCarthy
College Point pizza delivery man Pablo Villavicencio returned to his wife and two children Tuesday evening after a federal judge ordered his release from immigrant detention.
Villavicencio spent 53 days in a New Jersey jail cell following his arrest at the Fort Hamilton military base in Brooklyn for an outstanding deportation order. Villavicencio was delivering food to the base when security guards stopped him and demanded he show identification. The guards used his IDNYC to conduct a background check and discovered the deportation order. They then alerted Immigration and Customs Enforcement, who arrested Villavicencio.
His ordeal became a flashpoint in both local and national efforts to resist overzealous immigration enforcement and galvanized local lawmakers, activists and Queens residents.
In June, the entire Queens congressional delegation signed onto a letter to the ICE New York field office director advocating for Villavicencio’s release.
“Living in the United States, he has dedicated his life to his family — his daughters and wife — whom are all U.S. citizens,” the letter reads. “Mr. Villavicencio’s friends, family and the greater community at large request that he be granted release from custody as he exercises the right to exhaust all his legal options before being removed from the United States.”
Throughout the day Tuesday, activists holding signs and chanting “Free Pablo” lined the sidewalk outside the courthouse in Lower Manhattan
In making his decision, U.S. District Judge Paul Crotty argued that rather than being detained and deported, Villavicencio should instead be allowed to continue pursuing legal residency.
“Although he stayed in the United States unlawfully — he has otherwise been a model citizen,” Crotty wrote in his decision. “He now has two children, both of whom are United States citizens. He has no criminal history. He has paid his taxes. And he has worked diligently to provide for his family.”
During the hearing, Crotty questioned why exactly the U.S. government believed it should detain Villavicencio.
“Well, the powerful are doing what they want, and the poor are suffering what they must,” Crotty said. “I mean, is there any concept of justice here or are we just doing this because we want to? Why do we want to enforce the order? It makes no difference in terms of the larger issues facing the country.”
Gov. Andrew Cuomo praised the outcome but said the situation never should have happened in the first place.
“Mr. Villavicencio was held for 53 days, and that is 53 days too long — this never should have happened,” Cuomo said in a statement. “While the federal government continues its un-American assault on immigrants, New York will stand with our immigrant communities and strive to uphold the values embodied by the [Statue of Liberty].”
Villavicencio first arrived in the U.S. from Ecuador in 2008 and ignored an agreement to voluntarily leave the country in 2010. Since then, he has started a family with a U.S. Citizen, raised two children and worked at a pizza place in College Point. He has never committed a crime.
In an interview with the Queens Chronicle, the manager of Nonna Delia’s, the pizzeria where Villavicencio worked, described him as “a great person, a great guy and a great family man.”
But that 2010 deportation order came back to haunt him when delivering a pizza to Fort Hamilton on June 1. Even though he had made this route multiple times before, guards had asked for additional identification this time, and when a background check revealed his undocumented status, immigration agents were called.
Villavicencio was slated to be swiftly deported, but a judge initially blocked that process. As the legal battle was playing out, the case generated significant public outrage. Protests and demands for his release grew since his arrest, including among Queens lawmakers.
By throwing out the deportation request, Crotty allowed Villavicencio to rebuild and resume his life.
“What happened to Pablo was inhumane,” said City Council Speaker Corey Johnson in a statement. “This decision rights an incredible wrong, and sends a clear message to President Trump that the rule of law still applies.
His experience, however, is emblematic of the surge in arrests of non-criminal immigrants under the administration of President Donald Trump. In the 2017 fiscal year, ICE arrested 37,734 undocumented immigrants without criminal records, more than twice the amount in 2016.
An interactive map by the Immigrant Defense Project and the Center for Constitutional Rights sheds light on 665 ICE operations that have taken place in New York since 2013 and many of the stories resemble Villavicencio’s experience of having his life suddenly turned upside down.
At least 133 of the ICE raids occurred in Queens, including dozens in the Queens Criminal Courthouse in Kew Gardens. At least 17 immigrants have been arrested in Corona, according to the IDP.
“I cannot imagine what Pablo went through the last few weeks,”New York Mayor Bill de Blasio tweeted. “He was separated from his family and his loved ones for delivering a pizza in America in 2018. Glad he’s headed home, but it’s unconscionable that he was ever detained.
As for Villavicencio, he said he is happy to be back with his family.
“I love this country,” he told CNN. “I love this country because it gave me this family. [It] gave me my daughters, but I do not share the intolerance and disrespect of the current government.”