Pablo’s release is a victory for justice

July 27, 2018

Lea Ramirez and Lucy Herschel, members of 1199SEIU and paralegals at the Legal Aid Society, write from New York City about the successful struggle that they were a part of organizing to win freedom for a detained Ecuadorian immigrant.

PABLO VILLAVICENCIO is free from ICE and safe at home with his family today.

The Long Island man was arrested and detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in June for the “crime” of doing his job and delivering a pizza to a local military base. He was released from the Hudson County Correctional Facility in New Jersey on Tuesday night.

In ordering Villavicencio freed, federal Judge Paul Crotty questioned the “justice” of his being detained in the first place — and wondered out loud in court about how “the powerful are doing what they want, and the poor are suffering what they must.”

That alone shows the spread of shock and discontent in Trump’s America, where families are torn apart at the U.S.-Mexico border, children are caged in emptied-out warehouses and families like Pablo’s live in daily fear that ICE will come through the door for them, demanding documents.

Crotty is no radical. He was appointed as a federal judge by George W. Bush and was the top lawyer for the city under former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

Immigrant rights advocates rally for Pablo Villavicencio
Immigrant rights advocates rally for Pablo Villavicencio

That he would express the concerns he did is a sign of both how outrageous the Trump administration is behaving, but also the impact of protests, mobilizations and statements of solidarity by defenders of immigrant rights who stand up to ICE’s terror.

VILLAVICENCIO’S DEPORTATION case became national news in part because activists and organizations sprang into action to defend him after word got out about his detention.

Bay Ridge for Social Justice, a grassroots group based in the community around the Fort Hamilton military base, where Villavicencio was arrested, organized an emergency response march and rally. Seven people were arrested in an act of civil disobedience to block traffic in the busy 5th Avenue retail district.

City Council members quickly became involved, speaking out against Pablo's detention. A robust legal team was assembled by the Legal Aid Society, which won Pablo a stay of removal, and filed a habeas corpus petition to have him released. These forces, along with Make the Road New York, helped to publicize the case, and Pablo's families' story garnered front page coverage in all the New York tabloids.

The rallies continued, including a mobilization outside Hudson County Correctional on Father’s Day, where attendance for the regular gathering was swelled by activists bringing their solidarity for Villavicencio and adding their voices to the call for an end to family separations and exposing ICE’s crimes.

A host of organizations were involved in the fight for Villavicencio: Bay Ridge for Social Justice, Association of Legal Aid Attorneys (ALAA)-UAW Local 2325, 1199SEIU representing Legal Aid Society paralegals and social workers, Democratic Socialists of America Immigrant Justice Working Group, International Socialist Organization, Resist the Deportation Machine and Within Our Lifetime-United for Palestine, among others.

These groups were behind the rally organized for Pablo’s court hearing date in Manhattan this past Tuesday.

To build support for that mobilization, another protest was called, under the slogan “Not in our Neighborhood,” outside the Fort Hamilton base. There, activists specifically connected Pablo’s case and the resistance to ICE with opposition to Trump’s Supreme Court-sanctioned Muslim ban.

The role of unions was important throughout this fight and a new development around an issue where nonprofit organizations have often dominated. ALAA and 1199 members were instrumental in the organizing efforts, with the ALAA union providing space for meetings. The process gave union members an opportunity to become involved in the Villavicencio’s case in a very direct way.

As Legal Aid attorney and ALAA member Evelyn Malave said, “I think my role as a union member is to organize my sisters and brothers to take action around these issues that deeply affect us and that are also workers’ issues — Pablo was at work when this happened to him — to leverage the power of the collective structure that we already have in place to make change happen.”

ON TUESDAY, July 24, around 70 people came out for the rally at the courthouse to show solidarity with Villavicencio.

Speakers from all the different organizations that worked around the case described the historic and current attacks on immigrants, and connected these with the attack on the labor movement and other initiatives of the right during the Trump era.

Karl Schwartz, a socialist and activist with Resist the Deportation Machine, spoke about the horrifying conditions at the Hudson County prison where Villavicencio was being held:

Human rights organizations have found that detainees were being fed raw food, were rarely given access to exercise or an outdoor space, and were sent to solitary confinement as a punishment just for speaking up against the horrible conditions.

Even more disturbing, Hudson County contracts with ICE, which pays them $125 a night per bed. So they are making profits off of separating families and detaining immigrants. We are telling our counties in Northern New Jersey that you will not use blood money to fund our county. If you do business with ICE, you will not do business as usual.

After rallying outside, around 20 supporters were able to watch the hearing in the courtroom — the rest packed into a standing-room-only overflow room. The judge didn’t announce his decision immediately, so after the hearing, protesters continued to chant “Free Pablo” while marching from the courthouse.

Later that day, when news of Crotty’s decision spread, the immigrant rights organization Make the Road New York re-tweeted a moving video of Pablo Villavicencio reuniting with his wife and two young daughters.

Seeing this and knowing that Villavicencio can now fight his immigration case to stay in the U.S. from his home with his family reinforced for all of us why we must fight, organize, rally and protest to stop deportations and end family separations, here and at the border.

“While [the rally] may not have been the decision-maker for the judge,” said Rachel Lichtman-Castano, a Legal Aid paralegal and 1199 member, “I think it was important that people knew and realized that Pablo Villavicencio wasn’t just going to be an ignored statistic, but that people would show up and fight for his freedom.”

The importance of the fight was underlined a day after Villavicencio’s release, when Concepción Barrios and Margarito Silva were also released from ICE custody on bond.

Barrios and Silva are Brooklyn grandparents who were detained by ICE on July 4 at the Fort Drum military base, where they were visiting their daughter and son-in-law.

Like in Villavicencio’s case, base personnel asked the two for identification, and they presented their New York City identification cards, which were created precisely to protect vulnerable populations. That wasn’t good enough for the guards at the base, who demanded more documentation and then called ICE.

We should celebrate these victories for the Villavicencio and Silva families. But our fight isn’t over. Activists have been calling on military authorities to accept municipal ID cards without further questions. And if Cuomo really wants to show his support for Pablo Villavicencio, he will support legislation to issue driver’s licenses regardless of immigration status.

The release of Pablo shows that our protest and action can have an impact. Now we need to have even more of one.

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