A month ago, Pablo Villavicencio kissed his wife and daughters goodbye as he left for work to deliver pizza, thinking he would hug and kiss them again later that night.
His life as a dedicated husband and loving father was turned upside down when he stepped onto the Army’s Fort Hamilton base in Brooklyn with a delivery. Soon he found himself confused and being cuffed by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents and locked up in a dingy New Jersey detention facility.
“It’s been a month of nightmares,” his wife, Sandra Chica, said from their Hempstead, L.I., home Thursday. “It’s been a month of questions and no answers.”
In an exclusive interview with the Daily News, Chica reflected on the ordeal the family of four has suffered since President Trump’s anti-immigration officials tore them apart. Chica and her girls, Luciana, 4, and Antonia, 2, are hoping a federal judge releases Villavicencio when he pleads his case July 24.
“It’s been really hard. We hope the judge lets him come home, but we really don’t know what’s going to happen,” Chica said. “My daughters need their father.”
Pablo Villavicencio with his two daughters, Luciana, now 4, and Antonia, 2. He was detained as an illegal immigrant while delivering a pizza at the Fort Hamilton Army base in Brooklyn Pablo Villavicencio with his two daughters, Luciana, now 4, and Antonia, 2. He was detained as an illegal immigrant while delivering a pizza at the Fort Hamilton Army base in Brooklyn (AP)
Little Luciana hopped on the couch and clutched a photo of her dad wearing a yellow soccer shirt. Chica held back tears hearing her ask about her dad.
“I love my dad so much. I miss him,” said Luciana, running her finger on the image of her dad’s face. “I want him here in my house. My poor father is working on a place really far away. He’ll be home soon.”
“She’s too young to understand. I wish I could explain,” Chica said, drying tears.
She is happy that Pablo’s once imminent deportation was put on hold by a federal judge in early June after lawyers filed an emergency petition. But Chica laments that her Ecuadoran-born husband remains locked up in deplorable conditions. She tries to visit him every Saturday, but always leaves feeling sadder, she said.
“They cry a lot. Each time they hear the bell ring, they run over and say, Daddy’s home. It breaks my heart to see their faces,” Chica said. “Why is my dad not with me? I want Daddy here. They are really stressed.”
Sandra Chica and her daughters, Luciana and Antonia, speak to the Daily News Thursday about the imprisonment of Pablo Villaciencio. Sandra Chica and her daughters, Luciana and Antonia, speak to the Daily News Thursday about the imprisonment of Pablo Villaciencio. (Howard Simmons / NEW YORK DAILY NEWS)
Chica, a naturalized citizen from Colombia, said she has placed photos of Villavicencio all over the house so that they remember him. There’s a family photo of posing with Santa Claus and others of a smiling family in the kitchen.
“At the end of the day we are separated. This is going to take a toll on my little girls,” she said. “This is going to take a toll on him, too. It’s been a month, but it feels like a year.”
Jennifer Williams, a Legal Aid Society immigration lawyer, said they are working hard to reunite the couple. They will argue that racial profiling was behind Villavicencio’s arrest and that he can comply with future court visits while living at home.
“It’s just very terrifying the way how this all unfolded,” Williams said. “If it can happen to a pizza guy, it can happen to anyone. I think we should be very clear that this is a full-on war on immigrants. I think that there is no other way to describe what’s happening.”
“They are humans,” she added.
Villavicencio has missed Father’s Day, Luciana’s fourth birthday and a fifth wedding anniversary since his incarceration.
The Daily News on June 17. The Daily News on June 17. (New York Daily News)
“I told Luciana it’s because he’s working,” Chica said. “I can see it is affecting them. They are not sleeping right. The other day Luciana woke up crying. She said she dreamed of her dad. He was right here with me? Where is he now, she said. She doesn’t understand why he isn’t home.”
She hopes Villavicencio returns home before Antonia turns 3 on Aug. 24. Chica, a medical assistant, said she works hard to pay the bills and keep food on the table, but there is one thing she can’t give them.
“I try to give them everything that they need, but I can’t give them Pablo,” she said. “He’s trying to stay positive. We all have that small hope that he will catch a break. If we lose hope, we lose everything.”
The pair met in 2012 through a mutual friend. Villavicencio confided that his plan was to work for a few years in the U.S. and return to Ecuador.
“We fell in love. He told me, You changed all of my plans. … I want a family with you,’ ” Chica recalled. “We just wanted a family together.”
Soon the couple found themselves saying their ‘I do’s’ in front of a civil judge in Queens.
“It was a very small wedding. He looked so handsome, so perfect. He had bought his first suit, a gray one. I still have it in the closet,” Chica said with a bittersweet smile. “He was so nervous. He was sweating a lot. He was shaking his fingers. He was really excited to have a family.”
10:04 AM - Jul 6, 2018 · Hempstead, NY5 See Edgar Sandoval's other Tweets Twitter Ads info and privacy They had two beautiful girls, and Pablo dedicated his life to working to provide for them, she recalled. He also wanted to settle his immigration status. He had applied for legal residency in February through his wife.
“He said, OK, we need to do something about this. He was trying to file the right paperwork. It takes time because it is expensive,” she said. “He was afraid of one day being detained. But we never thought it would happen this way.”
These days, Villavicencio is a shell of the man he was when they married, she said.
“To be honest, he’s scared. He looks like a different person. It is scary in there,” she said. “His eyes are different. He says, why me? There are a lot of people, why me?”
“But we have to keep fighting to bring him home,” she added. “We will be together again.”