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Judge in Hempstead immigrant case calls 'zero tolerance' policy 'cruel'

U.S. District Judge Paul Crotty issued an opinion in the case of Hempstead resident Pablo Villavicencio, who was freed last week.

Pablo Villavicencio at his Hempstead home with his

Pablo Villavicencio at his Hempstead home with his wife, Sandra Chica, and daughters Antonia and Luciana on July 25. Photo Credit: Howard Schnapp

A New York judge who ordered an Ecuadorean immigrant and Hempstead resident who delivered pizza to an Army installation freed from an immigration detention camp said Wednesday that the government was applying its "zero-tolerance" policy toward illegal entry in a "thoughtless and cruel" manner.

U.S. District Judge Paul Crotty explained in a written opinion why he ordered Pablo Villavicencio freed last week from a detention center in New Jersey.

He also nullified a "supervised release" order Villavicencio was told to sign before he was freed that set special conditions he must follow.

In the opinion, Crotty took a swipe at the government's decision to separate some children from their parents at the Mexican border and then transport the children to New York, saying he did not believe "this is accidental or random."

Instead, he wrote, the government may be trying to break detainees' connections to their support system of families and friends and frustrate their ability to retain competent legal representation and effectively participate in legal proceedings.

In Villavicencio's case, the government tried to move the case to a New Jersey court.

In a footnote, Crotty said the behavior reminded him that Thomas Jefferson cited in the Declaration of Independence how colonists were tried in "remote locations" to obstruct the laws for naturalization of foreigners.

"Immigration was even then a critical issue," Crotty said.

Villavicencio, 35, is married to a U.S. citizen. They have two young girls who also are citizens. He is trying to establish legal residency.

He was arrested June 1 and detained after delivering pizza to the Army garrison in Fort Hamilton. When he arrived at the installation, guards requested identification, and he produced a city identification card. A background check showed he had been ordered to leave the United States in 2010 but stayed. He unlawfully entered the country in 2008.

Crotty ordered him freed a week ago and said he would explain his reasoning later.

Crotty wrote that there was no justification for Villavicencio's detention and said the man had earned a right to apply to stay in the country legally under a special program set up for individuals in his situation.

"It should not be difficult to discern that families should be kept together rather than be separated by the thoughtless and cruel application of a so called 'zero-tolerance' policy," Crotty wrote. "This is especially so where the organization seeking removal has also provided a pathway for a person in petitioner's position to regularize his immigration status with minimal disruption to his family life."

He added that Villavicencio "deserves it due to his hard work, his dedication to the family, and his clean criminal record."

The judge called Villavicencio's arrest a "mercurial exercise of executive power."

He said the government had given Villavicencio no explanation or justification to deny him a chance to apply through a program it had established.

"It is not unlike giving a person a job, and then taking away the tools necessary to perform the job. It is simply not right," Crotty said.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered the "zero-tolerance" policy in April.

Through a spokesman, government lawyers declined to comment Wednesday.

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