A Manhattan federal judge late Tuesday ordered Ecuadorean pizza deliveryman Pablo Villavicencio released from immigration detention and stayed the deportation of the Hempstead father who entered the United States illegally a decade ago.
Villavicencio, whose case became a cause célèbre among immigration activists after he was detained delivering a pizza at Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn in June, should be freed and allowed to stay in the United States while pursuing legal residency based on his marriage to a U.S. citizen, said U.S. District Judge Paul Crotty.
“Although he stayed in the United States unlawfully — he has otherwise been a model citizen,” Crotty wrote. “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.”
Villavicencia and his wife, Sandra Chica, each carrying one of their sleeping daughters, arrived around midnight Tuesday at their Hempstead residence. "Thank God for the opportunity for my life, for my daughters, for my wife," he said, noting his 53-day stay at the New Jersey immigration facility.
Villavicencio said he was uncertain whether he would return to work at the restaurant he was delivering pizzas for when he was taken into custody. "I don't know what happens tomorrow," he said.
“I love this country," he said outside his home. “This is the best country in the world."
Villavicencio, 35, who officials say crossed the U.S. border illegally in 2008 and ignored an agreement to leave voluntarily in 2010, was detained after Fort Hamilton guards ran a background check. He has been held at an Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility in Kearny, New Jersey since then.
He had been subject to a removal order since 2010, but began the process of seeking to legalize his status in February, and Crotty said he had a right to stay with his family while pursuing it.
“The government’s deportation of petitioner would contravene that right,” the judge wrote.
Several hours after Crotty’s order, a teary-eyed but smiling Villavicencio left the Kearny facility and climbed into a waiting black Chevy Suburban for the trip back to Hempstead.
Amid a scrum of news reporters, TV cameras and bright lights, he opened the SUV’s passenger window, leaned out the window and professed his gratitude to supporters in Spanish and English.
“Thank you, thank you for everything,” he said in English as supporters clapped. “Thank you for everything, guys and friends.”
Nearby a woman waved a sign that read: ““Family separation violates human rights.”
The pizza man’s plight had attracted sympathy from a variety of politicians and prominent Democrats, including Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and U.S Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.). At a hearing Tuesday morning Crotty’s courtroom was packed with Villavicencio’s supporters as well as his wife and young daughters.
The judge held off ruling until late in the day while considering arguments from the government that he didn’t have jurisdiction because Villavicencio is jailed in New Jersey, and because appeals courts – not district judges – are supposed to handle challenges to removal orders.
But he expressed sympathy at the hearing for the detained man. “The powerful are doing what they want, the poor are suffering what they must,” Crotty said. “…Is there any concept of justice, or are we just doing what we want?”
Villavicencia’s lawyers argued to Crotty that regulations adopted in 2016 to preserve “family unity” allowed those illegally in the United States to remain while seeking legal status as a citizen’s spouse, and then return briefly to Ecuador for a visa instead of having to wait 10 years to return.
Crotty sharply questioned the urgency of the government’s desire to deport Villavicencio before he exhausted his bid for lawful status.
“It makes no difference in terms of the larger issues facing the country,” the judge said.
The judge also sided with Villavicencio on the second issue in the case — whether he needs to be held in an ICE facility while his case is pending, in light of his lack of a criminal record.
“What is the danger to the community of a man who has not committed a crime?” Crotty asked.
Government lawyer Joseph Cordaro argued that ICE was entitled to hold Villavicencio pending removal since he had no lawful status and ignored an order to leave since 2010, and could apply from Ecuador for legal status permission to return immediately rather than waiting 10 years.
“He is not prohibited from seeking those waivers,” Cordaro told the judge.
Villavicencio wasn’t present in court, but his wife, Sandra Chica, who has complained that the detention has fractured their family and made it hard to stay afloat, sat in the front row watching as their 2- and 4-year-old daughters played with stuffed animals.
The little girls left midway through the hearing. Chica declined to comment afterward, but a friend said the children got bored and wanted to play.
After the release order, Villavicencio’s Legal Aid Society lawyers praised it as a triumph for “law, humanity and morality,” and used it as a platform to attack President Donald Trump.
“This decision should serve as a rebuke against the Trump administration and its merciless crusade to tear families apart,” said Adriene Holder, the civil attorney in charge. “Today is also an affirmation that the courts can still serve as a check on the executive when it breaks with our laws and principles.”
Federal officials had no immediate comment.
With Kadia Goba and Michael O’Keeffe