The Ecuadorean immigrant who was held for deportation after he delivered pizza to a Brooklyn Army installation has been released from a New Jersey lockup after a judge Tuesday ordered his immediate release.
Pablo Villavicencio walked out of the immigration detention center in Hudson County shortly before 9 p.m. Tuesday and was greeted with hugs from his jubilant wife and two young daughters. He thanked supporters and the media before being whisked away in an SUV.
"It's immense. I'm so happy," he said in tears.
Hours earlier, U.S. District Judge Paul Crotty wrote of Villavicencio, "Although he stayed in the United States unlawfully and is currently subject to a final order of removal, he has otherwise been a model citizen."
The judge said Villavicencio can remain in the United States while he exhausts his right to try to gain legal status. Villavicencio applied to stay in the U.S. after he married a U.S. citizen, with whom he has two young girls, ages 2 and 4.
The judge cited those children and said they are U.S. citizens.
"He has no criminal history," the judge wrote. "He has paid his taxes. And he has worked diligently to provide for his family."
The U.S. government, which had wanted the case moved from New York to New Jersey, did not immediately comment on the judge's action.
Adriene Holder, the attorney-in-charge of the civil practice at the Legal Aid Society, said the rule of "law, humanity and morality" prevailed and the Villavicencio family has "finally received a crucial measure of relief from their 53-day nightmare."
Jennifer Williams, deputy attorney in charge of the immigration unit at Legal Aid, said in a news briefing just after Villavicencio was released, "It's just truly amazing that this utter nightmare for this family is officially over. It's just been such a joyous day."
The judge ruled after hearing arguments earlier Tuesday, when he put a government lawyer on the spot over the effort by immigration authorities to enforce a 2010 deportation order. He questioned the need to detain and quickly deport Villavicencio, who's 35 years old.
"Well, the powerful are doing what they want, and the poor are suffering what they must," the judge said after hearing Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph Cordaro defend the government's actions.
"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."
During the hearing, the lawyers debated whether Villavicencio should be allowed to stay in the United States while awaiting a response to the green card application that he started in February. According to his lawyers, he should be allowed to stay to see the process through without fear of deportation. However, prosecutors say he should go to Ecuador and see the process through from there.
The judge pressed prosecutors on why they think he poses a threat and consider him a danger to the community — even though he committed no crimes.
"Why is he being detained? Is he a threat to the community? Is he a risk of flight?" Crotty asked. "What is the danger to the community for a man who has committed no crime?"
Now, according to Gregory Copeland, a supervising attorney at Legal Aid, Villavicencio has the opportunity "to pursue the lawful status he had already commenced before he was detained unlawfully."
The case has attracted widespread attention amid a crackdown by the administration of President Donald Trump on illegal immigration. Trump, a Republican, has said his policies are designed to keep the country safe.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, said the federal government has "cruelly" kept Villavicencio from his wife, Sandra Chica, and two daughters "for no legitimate reason."
Villavicencio was arrested on June 1 while making a delivery to the garrison in Fort Hamilton. When he arrived at Fort Hamilton, 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.