Journalist. Investigator. Storyteller.
The image is still fresh in my mind. Two little girls in tears running with their arms outstretched towards their father who longed for their embrace after months in detention
I first learned of Pablo Villavicencio when a friend of his contacted me on Facebook. He told me that Villavicencio, an undocumented immigrant from Ecuador, had just been arrested after delivering a pizza to Fort Hamilton, a U.S. Army base in Brooklyn. I broke the story that day and its impact was almost immediate: people took to the streets calling for his release and many were arrested after acts of civil disobedience. Villavicencio instantly became a poster child to the opposition to the Trump administration's anti-immigrant policies.
I did not lose a beat and conducted multiple phone interviews with Villavicencio during his detention at the Bergen County jail in New Jersey. Through my reporting, I revealed that he presented his IDNYC, a municipal identification issued to New York City residents regardless of their legal status, when he entered the Fort Hamilton base. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who made IDNYC a centerpiece of his campaign, blasted ICE for the arrest and offered his support. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo demanded Villavicencio's immediate release, saying he was improperly detained. My investigative reports revealed inconsistencies in the statements issued by the U.S. military and ICE regarding the origins of the arrest.
Despite the international media attention his case garnered, political pressure and a courtroom battle, Villavicencio spent almost a year separated from his family while in jail until a federal judge ordered his release in July 2018.
On the night of his scheduled release, less than a mile away from Bergen County jail in New Jersey, a motorcade picked me up. His family was inside one of the black SUVs. They were nervous and didn't know whether to cry or break out in happiness. It was a short drive and Villavicencio's daughters showed me the presents they had for him. The vehicles roared past a throng of reporters from every news outlet around the world, all of them waiting for a glimpse of Villavicencio. I was the only reporter to interview him on live television immediately after his release
Villavicencio attributes his freedom to my work and I'm deeply humbled for it. The series of reports on his case led to a Silver Telly Award for Social Responsibility and earned various Emmy nominations.
When I first heard Carmen's story, my heart dropped to the floor. For five years she was sold for sex like a piece of meat in New York City. She had been kidnapped as a teenager, sexually assaulted, beaten and trafficked from Mexico to the U.S. until one day she escaped and helped authorities dismantle a human trafficking ring that stretched from remote villages in Mexico to the streets of New York City.
Federal law enforcement sources close to the case allowed me to interview Carmen, who detailed the atrocities she endured. My report revealed how traffickers operate and sell these women in broad daylight using the so-called "chica cards," which are like baseball cards that feature naked women and phone numbers and are handed out to perspective Johns on the street. Authorities have tried to crackdown on the practice, but the activity is rampant.
"Sold for a few dollars," earned me an Emmy Award and helped raise awareness of the insidious practice.
OSHA Cards Black Market
Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights, Queens is today like Times Square in the 1980s. It's an open secret that almost everything can be bought and sold there, both legally and illegally. Sources in the area tipped me off to a booming black market that preyed on immigrant construction workers during a summer that claimed the lives of more than twenty laborers in sites across the city. This information prompted me to launch an undercover investigation.
My team and I huddled in two unmarked vehicles under the subway tracks that connect Queens to Manhattan. We waited for my informant's signal as he was to point out the crew members from a local gang that peddled fake OSHA cards, a federal document given to construction workers after the completion of a series of safety training courses. The document is required by law in most job sites.
With undercover cameras rolling, we made contact with one of the sellers and completed the transaction in a few minutes. The card was so well-produced that, at first sight, it was almost impossible to differentiate from the real document. My investigative stories on this black market prompted local authorities to take action and crack down on the sale of these fake documents.
Alma Centeno's Case
A source inside Bergen County jail alerted me to Alma Centeno's case. She was six weeks pregnant when ICE agents detained her outside family court in Queens. Centeno was not receiving adequate health care in the facility and feared for the life of her unborn child.
After a few weeks in detention, she became gravely ill and had to be transported from the jail to a local hospital in chains. That's when my source called me. I immediately worked the scoop. My investigative reports and phone interviews with Centeno while she was detained prompted U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand to call for her release. In retaliation for speaking out, Centeno was fast-tracked for deportation. To halt her removal and secure her freedom attorneys argued that ICE violated her free speech rights under the First Amendment. Her case had broader implications for the conditions at federal immigration detention centers and the due process afforded to undocumented immigrants.
A few months later, just before Christmas, Centeno's daughter was born in freedom. After she arrived home from the hospital with her baby in arms, she called me to share the good news and thank me for my work. Knowing that I played a part in the outcome of her case is one of the highlights of my career.
Relentless, in-depth and original journalism — that's the purpose of my work. Here on my website you will see examples of many stories that I'm very proud of. They were made possible by many valuable sources, from law enforcement and attorneys, to community contacts.