For the first time since federal immigration agents locked him up in June, Pablo Villavicencio looked across the breakfast table inside his Hempstead home on Wednesday morning and saw the warm, loving smiles of his wife and two children.
"Today, I feel very happy to be here again; back at home, with my wife, my daughters,” Villavicencio, 35, said, emerging later in the morning from his home to speak with a group of news reporters.
Less than 24 hours before, the pizza deliveryman from Ecuador sat in a federal immigration detention facility in New Jersey, his quiet life as a hardworking Long Island family man in the past. Uncertainty — about when he'd see his family again, about when he'd be deported to Ecuador -- was in the future.
A federal judge's decision Tuesday night in Manhattan temporarily suspended the deportation of Villavicencio, who federal officials said crossed the border illegally in 2008. His late-night release from an Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency facility in Kearny, New Jersey followed. By early Wednesday morning, a bleary-eyed and emotional Villavicencio arrived back home to Hempstead.
Even with well-wishers and curious journalists competing for his time, he still found a few moments Wednesday to do what he could only dream about in detention — play with his daughters, Luciana 4, and Antonia 2.
Luciana, like Antonia, born in the United States, said when her father came home, her tears dried up.
"Now I can play with him and I am very happy with him,” the little girl said in Spanish as she held her father's hand.
The decision by U.S. District Judge Paul Crotty allows Villavicencio to stay in the U.S. while pursuing legal residency based on his marriage to his wife, Sandra Chica, an American citizen. It also reunited him with loved ones in Hempstead for the first time since early June when he was detained at Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn while delivering pizza. He was turned over to ICE officials who wanted him deported after saying he ignored an agreement to leave voluntarily in 2010.
In a statement Wednesday, ICE maintained "that lawful removal orders from federal immigration judges must be enforced, and Mr. Villavicencio is still subject to a 2010 final order of removal. . . . It should be noted that Mr. Villavicencio chose to enter the United States illegally, which is a crime."
During the 53 days Villavicencio spent in the federal detention center, he said Wednesday, the first few were the toughest because he was unable to speak with his wife and daughters.
“I felt very bad, very sad,” he said in Spanish through an English translator. “I thought everything was going to end, that my dream of having my family always together, to remain together, I thought everything was going to end.”
Villavicencio said he spent the first three days in a cell with no windows. Next, he was transferred to another room that housed more than 50 people. Villavicencio, who described the facility as “unsanitary,” said he remained in that room for the duration of his detention. Five people in the cell with him told Villavicencio they were separated from their children at the U.S.-Mexico border. They shared their stories and showed him photos of their children, Villavicencio said.
After reuniting with his wife and children, Villavicencio said entered his home and prayed.
He wants to go back to work, Villavicencio said, but stepping outside brings fears that ICE agents will take him again.
“That’s the fear of going back to work,” he said. “To go out on the streets, it’s the fear that I have today.”
With John Riley