The plea of a Hempstead family to halt the deportation of a father of two from Ecuador got the attention of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who offered help and secured free legal aid Thursday for the immigrant detained when he delivered pizza to Fort Hamilton military base in Brooklyn.
The case has galvanized activists in New York City, who took to the streets of Brooklyn’s Bay Ridge neighborhood on Wednesday chanting pro-immigrant slogans to accentuate the message that a worker delivering food does not represent a threat.
Pablo Antonio Villavicencio-Calderon remained in detention at the Hudson County Correctional Facility in Kearny, New Jersey, in the custody of the U.S. Immigration Enforcement.
But Cuomo said he had spoken to Villavicencio-Calderon’s wife and secured legal representation for him through the state’s Liberty Defense Project, a pro bono program funded by his office. The response of the governor, who is facing a primary challenge in his bid for re-election, drew contrast from the policies and tone set by President Donald Trump, whose administration seeks to deport all people in the country illegally.
“The detention of Pablo Villavicencio as he was delivering pizza at Fort Hamilton — under the gaze of Lady Liberty — goes against everything we believe in,” said Cuomo’s statement. “Detaining a hardworking man, separating a father from his children and tearing apart communities doesn’t make America safe, and a wrong-minded immigration policy grounded in bias and cruelty doesn’t make America great.”
The controversy stemmed from a commonplace event in New York City life: Someone ordered food at the base, a historic military post that houses components of the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, National Guard and Reserve at its garrison, within view of Gravesend Bay and Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.
Both the immigration enforcement agency and Fort Hamilton, which is under the authority of the Department of Defense, said they acted properly in holding Villavicencio-Calderon and placing him in detention after a routine check raised a red flag.
A statement issued by Fort Hamilton said that Villavicencio-Calderon attempted to make a delivery Friday about 11 a.m. but lacked identification required to enter. He was directed to the Visitor Control Center to obtain a daily pass. “Upon signing a waiver permitting a background check, Department of the Army Access Control standard for all visitors, an active Immigration and Customs Enforcement warrant was discovered on file,” the statement said.
He was handed off to ICE, which enforces immigration orders.
ICE spokeswoman Rachael Yong-Yow he was “illegally present” in the country after he had been granted voluntary departure by an immigration judge in March 2010, meaning he would be allowed to leave the country on his own after entering without inspection — an option that carries a less severe ban on re-entry than when a person is removed by the government. He should have left by July 2010, she said.
“He agreed, but he went off the grid,” said Yong-Yow, and his lack of compliance triggered the order of removal. “There’s a warrant of deportation from eight years ago. . . . He’s under the radar for eight years. Meanwhile, he gets married, he has kids.”
At the family home in Hempstead, a woman who said she is the family’s nanny said the arrest and detention have devastated the family. Villavicencio-Calderon’s two daughters, ages 3 and 4, played by her feet. His wife, Sandra Chica, was not home as she was seeking legal help on his behalf, the woman said.
“We are all very sad because this is a family that’s being broken,” said Mildred Acevedo, 52, the nanny. “He’s not a criminal and he has not hurt anyone. His only crime is that he’s undocumented. He’s an excellent dad, husband and friend, just an excellent human being.”
Immigrant advocacy groups said the case shows a failure of government policies.
“It’s absolutely disgusting when the strongest military in the world punches down by going after pizza delivery men,” said Steven Choi, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition. Hardworking immigrants like Villavicencio-Calderon, he added, “shouldn’t be ripped from their communities and their crying children for pursuing the ever-dimmer American dream.”
Make the Road Action, a political group advocating on immigration issues, called on Cuomo to give driver’s licenses to immigrants lacking legal status, so they’re not subject to additional scrutiny when they are out earning a living.
Javier Valdés, the group’s co-executive director, said Villavicencio-Calderon “would be with his wife and children right now if New York followed the lead of 12 other states and restored access to driver’s licenses to all, regardless of immigration status.”