An undocumented pizza deliveryman who was turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents last month after delivering food to a Brooklyn Army base has been released, weeks after his arrest became a flashpoint in the debate over President Donald Trump’s immigration policy.
Pablo Villavicencio, a native of Ecuador who has lived in the United States for about 10 years, walked out of a federal detention center in New Jersey and into the arms of his wife and daughters Tuesday night after a judge granted him the right to remain free while he seeks legal immigration status, according to court documents.
In the order releasing Villavicencio, Judge Paul A. Crotty acknowledged that Villavicencio, who was ordered to leave the country in 2010, had violated immigration law but called him a “model citizen,” noting that his wife and two young daughters are all United States Citizens.
“He has no criminal history,” Crotty wrote. “He has paid his taxes. And he has worked diligently to provide for his family.”
In court, Crotty was even more pointed in his questioning of U.S. Attorney Joseph Cordaro, who represented the government’s attempt to keep Villavicencio behind bars until he can be deported, the New York Daily News reported.
“The powerful are doing what they must. The poor are suffering the most,” Crotty said, according to the News. “Is there any concept of justice? Or are we just doing what we want?”
Speaking with reporters Tuesday night following his release, Villavicencio told reporters in Spanish that he was just glad to be back with his family, according to Telemundo.
“I’m very happy to be free,” he told the Spanish-language television network. “I’m happy to be reunited with my wife and children.”
Villavicencio was arrested June 1, when he delivered pizza to the Fort Hamilton military base in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, after a security guard there ran a background check and contacted ICE agents, according to court documents. Villavicencio was whisked across the river to the Hudson County Correctional Facility, where he initially faced immediate deportation. But after a a judge ordered a temporary stay on his removal from the country, he settled in for a 53-day-long incarceration at the facility.
The arrest, which was first reported by the Spanish-language newspaper El Diario, ignited a firestorm of criticism from immigration activists, elected officials in New York, and from other restaurant workers, who reportedly boycotted the base for a time.
Dozens of activists joined protests outside the Army base, where they called for his release—and for the abolishment of ICE.
His writ of habeas corpus—a legal maneuver to challenge detention—was supported by New York congressmembers, members of the City Council, and by mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, all of whom submitted letters to the court calling for his release, documents show.
On Tuesday night, Villavicencio’s two young daughters and his wife, Sandra Carmona Chica, were waiting outside the detention facility to hand him Father’s Day gifts they had been unable to give him while he was locked up, according to the Daily News.
“We are extremely happy—there are no words that can describe what we’re feeling now,” Chica told the newspaper.
In a statement to reporters, Adrienne Holder, an attorney for the Legal-Aid Society, which helped represent Villavicencio, praised Crotty’s decision to release him.
“The rule of law, humanity and morality prevailed tonight with the Court’s order releasing Pablo back to his family and community,” Holder wrote. “The Villavicencio family has finally received a crucial measure of relief from their 53-day nightmare and we will continue to fight alongside them to protect their right to remain in the community they call home.”