On Friday, August 10, Pablo Villavicencio returned to Bay Ridge.
It was the first time the pizza deliveryman, who is undocumented, had been in the neighborhood since Friday, June 1, the day he attempted to bring an order to Fort Hamilton and found himself arrested and put into Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody, leading to a 53-day confinement in a New Jersey jail before he was finally freed on judge’s orders as he attempts to legalize his status.
Villavicencio visited the neighborhood with wife Sandra Chica, and their two daughters, Luciana, 4, and Antonia, 2, to thank Councilmember Justin Brannan, who was one of the first people to work to publicize his case. They all had lunch in the private room at the back of the Bridgeview Diner, Third Avenue and 92nd Street, and this writer was one of two journalists privileged to attend.
Villavicencio, 35, an Ecuadorian native, faced deportation after being turned over to ICE in the wake of a routine delivery that he had, in fact, done three times previously without incident.
On June 1, however, the IDNYC card that he’d used to gain entry to the base wasn’t sufficient. Rather, according to both ICE and Fort Hamilton officials, the deliveryman — who Chica said had been dubbed “Mr. Pizza” because he would deliver pizza once a month to various military bases — was flagged for an outstanding warrant during a voluntary background check that would allow him to complete his delivery, the result of his failure to leave the U.S. in July, 2010, three months after he had been granted voluntary departure by an immigration judge, and the deadline he had been given for departing.
“I love my job,” Villavicencio said, admitting, “I don’t know what happened that day.”
It was not typical, both he and his wife said, and she recalled that when she went to Fort Hamilton subsequently to pick up Villavicencio’s IDNYC card that had been left there, “They didn’t ask anything.”
“He was at the wrong place at the wrong time,” said Jennifer Williams, Villavicencio’s attorney, who also attended the lunch, and who suggested that what had transpired was, “Some kind of way to attack sanctuary cities.”
Williams noted that the authorities, “Exercised far more discretion than in the past. In essence, that’s out the window. The scary thing is we don’t know what’s around the corner.”
While he waits for his next hearing, Villavicencio — whose wife translated much of what he said — says he is “trying to go back to a normal life. I’ve shared a lot of time with my girls. I’m enjoying every day with my family, especially my kids. I sleep with them, go to the pool, bathe them, play basketball — the regular stuff.
“I am so happy to be with my wife, my daughters,” he added.
Nonetheless, he admitted, “I’m sometimes scared to go out. I prefer to spend time at home. When I see a police officer, I get scared.”
In addition, because of the legalization process he is involved in, Villavicencio said that he is unable to work, though the owner of the pizza place is holding his job for him. “I’m trying not to think about it, but it’s difficult because I was working all the time and now I have to be home,” he said. To help bridge the financial gap his enforced work hiatus has caused, so far nearly $33,000 has been raised through GoFundMe, via a campaign started by a family friend.
During his 53 days in jail, Villavicencio said frequent attempts were made to get him to sign his deportation order, as often as three or four times a week. But, he said, his attorney had advised him to sign nothing, so he refused.
“There’s a lot of pressure by ICE to have detainees sign their deportation orders as quickly as possible,” explained Williams. “A lot of arrests happen in silence. They are not going to see a judge and a lot don’t have family members.”
In addition, she said, “They generally don’t respect the fact that someone is represented by counsel. They still go into the cell and ask questions that are totally inappropriate.”
Among the worst times in jail for Villavicencio were the 72 hours he spent in what was called “the box,” in which the person who is confined is kept separated from everyone else. That occurred when he first got there.
While the 53 days passed slowly, with little to do, “A lot of people in a similar situation spend even more time there, six, nine months,” he said.
Villavicencio’s nearly two months in jail were not only difficult for him, but for his family. While Chica told the couple’s young daughters that their dad was working, his absence took a toll. “My daughters were suffering a lot,” said Chica. “Nobody could believe how this impacts them. When I had to take them to the jail, they were asking why we had to leave him there. They know he used to work in a restaurant, and asked why they didn’t see tables.”
Among the family events he missed was his older daughter’s birthday. “She was very upset,” said Chica. “She said, he’s not here to cut my cake. Why?”
Now, he said, when he goes to do something — even in another room — they ask, “Daddy, where are you going?”
It’s been a tough couple of months, but the family is deeply appreciative of all the assistance that has been proffered. “That’s the reason we are here,” said Chica. “We are really grateful. A lot of people helped us, and because of them, Pablo is here with us.”
Villavicencio said that he knew about the support while he was confined, and that it heartened him. “I watched the news on TV and saw a lot of people arrested for me,” he recalled.
The process of legalization for undocumented residents is a long one. According to Williams, it could take another year and a half or two years before it is complete.
In the meantime, Villavicencio’s fight is paying dividends for others in similar situations. “I was happy and proud yesterday when I heard another guy had been released, and the judge made the decision thinking about his case,” said Chica. “We suffered for like two months, but maybe a lot of people will get benefit from it. It’s been very difficult but we’re happy other people are getting released because of the decision of the judge.”