DOJ Drops Appeal In Queens Pizza Man Case

By David Brand

The legal nightmare may finally be ending for Pablo Villavicencio, a College Point pizza delivery man and father of two who was arrested and detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement for nearly two months.

On Friday, the Department of Justice dropped its appeal of a July court order that freed Villavicencio, who spent 53 days in a New Jersey jail cell after his arrest at the Fort Hamilton military base in Brooklyn. A federal judge issued an emergency stay of deportation, which freed Villavicencio, in August.

Pablo Villavicencio talks to the media after a judge ordered his release from immigration detention in August. // AP Photo.

Pablo Villavicencio talks to the media after a judge ordered his release from immigration detention in August. // AP Photo.

“We are glad that today the Federal Government fully withdrew their challenge to Mr. Villavicencio’s hard-won release from immigration detention and his opportunity to pursue lawful status. With Debevoise & Plimpton LLP, we will continue to represent Mr. Villavicencio, and work with him on securing status to remain in the United States with his family,” The Legal Aid Society said in a statement to the Eagle.

The DOJ’s decision to drop the appeal marked a reversal in how it approached Villavicencio’s case. On Tuesday, U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman informed the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit that it would challenge the August ruling that granted Villavicencio a writ of habeas corpus, the New York Law Journal reported.

Villavicencio, an immigrant from Ecuador, first arrived in the U.S. from Ecuador in 2008. Two years later, he ignored an agreement to voluntarily leave the country. Since then, he started a family with a U.S. citizen, raised two children and worked at Nonna Delia’s pizza shop in College Point.

In an interview with the Queens Chronicle, the manager of Nonna Delia’s described Villavicencio as “a great person, a great guy and a great family man.”

But the 2010 order to leave the country came back to haunt him when he delivered a pizza to Fort Hamilton on June 1. Though he had made the same delivery several times before, guards asked him for identification in addition to his IDNYC card. After a background check revealed his undocumented status, the guards called ICE.

In June, the entire Queens congressional delegation signed a letter to the ICE New York field office director advocating for Villavicencio’s release.

“Living in the United States, he has dedicated his life to his family — his daughters and wife — whom are all U.S. citizens,” the letter reads. “Mr. Villavicencio’s friends, family and the greater community at large request that he be granted release from custody as he exercises the right to exhaust all his legal options before being removed from the United States.”

In August, U.S. District Judge Paul Crotty ordered Villavicencio’s release. Crotty argued that rather than being detained and deported, Villavicencio should instead be allowed to continue pursuing legal residency.

“Although he stayed in the United States unlawfully — he has otherwise been a model citizen,” Crotty wrote in his decision. “He now has two children, both of whom are United States citizens. He has no criminal history. He has paid his taxes. And he has worked diligently to provide for his family.”

During the hearing, Crotty also questioned why the U.S. government believed it should continue to detain and ultimately deport Villavicencio, who had never committed a crime.

"Well, the powerful are doing what they want, and the poor are suffering what they must," Crotty said. "I mean, is there any concept of justice here or are we just doing this because we want to?" the judge asked. "Why do we want to enforce the order? It makes no difference in terms of the larger issues facing the country."