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Aug 26, 2014 4:22 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

One Man Recounts His Journey From Ecuador To The East End

Sep 3, 2014 4:39 PM

John came to the United States riding atop three car tire inner tubes with six compatriots pushing him, swimming as hard as they could against the current of the Rio Grande.

On the other side waited a “coyote” with a safe house to hide in until they could make a dash past border guards.It was a hot and sunny day in Laredo, Texas, when John first set foot on American soil in 2007.

Within 72 hours, he was in a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility in Houston, one specifically designed for housing young children who had been caught entering the United States illegally from South American and Central American countries and were awaiting deportation.

The flood of so-called “border kids,” who now stream toward the border by the tens of thousands and have sparked political wrangling, had yet to begin in those days: unaccompanied kids like John were still a small slice of the border-hopping population. John, now 22, says that life in that Houston detention center was comfortable and generally pleasant.

Today, he is a legal resident of the United States, living in Southampton with an uncle. His parents, who lived in the United States for nearly 20 years, have returned to Ecuador.

John has asked that his real name not be used for fear of harassment over the way in which he made his way to America. But while John’s ultimate fate was somewhat different from those of immigrants who spend months in detention awaiting deportation hearings, his tale paints a telling portrait of the harrowing journey that many of today’s young immigrants endure to come to the United States.

Ecuador

John was only 1 year old when his parents left their home and family in Cuenca, an Ecuadorian city of about 350,000, for Spain. They had secured fake visas and went seeking better jobs than the Ecuadorian economy could offer. While John was raised in Ecuador by his paternal grandparents, his parents emigrated from Spain to the United States, where they found steady work and relative prosperity. John’s brother was born in New York City, and the family eventually moved to East Hampton.

Money flowed to Ecuador, and John was raised with more comforts than his playmates who did not have family in the United States.

“Because my parents were in America, I had everything—I had Air Jordans and a big box of toys,” John recalled in East Hampton this week. “The other kids didn’t have these things. But I would say: At least you have your parents. I would miss them when we would make things for our parents in school, like cards for Mother’s Day. I would give them to my grandparents.”

Videos and photos of holiday celebrations and family picnics would be exchanged by mail between the United States and Ecuador. When John was 5 years old, phones came to Cuenca, and he got to hear his parents’ and brother’s voices for the first time.

When he was 8, his parents began trying to find ways to bring him to America.

They first tried to get another naturalized family with a U.S.-born son who looked similar to John to travel back to Ecuador, and then bring John back with them posing as their son. But the attempt was aborted because it was decided that their son’s documents would not convince U.S. Customs officials.

Soon, talk among the family turned to the use of the “coyotes” who smuggle thousands of foreigners from country to country toward the United States each day.

At first, John was reluctant. He was scared of the journey, the dangers and scary tales told of the journey. He did not want to leave the safety and comfort of his grandparents’ home. But over the years, the longing for his parents and life with them overtook his reticence. When he was 15, he was ready to make the journey.

“I was finishing middle school, and I said I wanted to come to the U.S.,” he recalled. “My parents were about to buy a new car, but they said, no, we’ll give you the money to come here.”

The bill at the time for the coyote’s efforts was $12,000 per person—$4,000 up front, $4,000 midway through the journey, and $4,000 when the person reached the United States.

“There is a place where you go to talk to the coyotes. There are different ones with different ways of going,” John explained. “You go with recommendations from others who had gotten here. So we went to see them. They said: ‘Come to Quito on Monday.’”

With $3,000 sewn into the inside of his belt, the 15-year-old boarded a bus on a summer day for Quito to begin his trek.

The first leg of the journey is easy: Get on a bus in Ecuador, ride it into Colombia.

Colombia

John is a rapper. He’s among a small group of artists seen as up-and-comers, with the potential for stardom, in the world of “Reggaeton,” as Spanish-language rap and hip-hop music is known. His affinity for music came early: He could be found writing lyrics with his cousins in bedrooms and rapping at each other. Now he’s recorded his own songs in a home studio and performs in local clubs and at parties.

Last winter, he was invited backstage by producers at a concert in Madison Square Garden with some of Reggaeton’s biggest international stars. In his Instagram feed, he mugs with some of the stars, putting on a stoically cool face, a mask over his usual soft-spoken, gentle demeanor. He will take the stage at a Patchogue nightclub next weekend for a Reggaeton revue concert with other young artists, his first appearance in front of a large, paying audience.

But the first time he was ever in a nightclub, was in Medellin, Colombia.

He spent a week there, with five adult men, waiting for the right moment when the coyotes leading them could sneak them across the Venezuelan border. They toured the city, went to the nightclubs. At night, some of the men would bring women—hookers, he presumes—to the hotel rooms where the group was staying.

Life in the city was interesting—fun, even—for a 15-year-old who had never left his hometown.

Getting out of Colombia is harder than getting in, at least if you’re trying to go to Venezuela or Panama. Venezuelan immigration control is not the sophisticated force the United States employs, but the border is short, and they are on the lookout for border jumpers.

Be it through bribes or cunning, the coyotes have the system figured out, though.

“We went across the border in a boat at night—it was scary, the water was very rough, and water was coming in the boat,” John said, noting that he and his traveling companions were not the only cargo that evening. “They take people in and take gasoline out. And they bring other things in with the people—from Colombia, you know what they have there.”

Venezuela

In 2007, Venezuela hosted the Copa America, the championship soccer tournament for South American countries. The city of Caracas was packed with soccer fans from all over South America when John and his party arrived there to prepare for the next leg of their journey.

In Caracas, the six men moved into two rooms with more than 40 people living in them, sleeping on bunk beds and mattresses that lined the walls. Each day, the coyotes would go to the airport to inquire about flights out of the country, but the waits were long, because of the busy traffic of soccer fans. It was more than a month before John and his group were told they could get a flight, headed for Guatemala.

Fake Venezuelan passports were made by the coyotes. The travelers were told to memorize the dates and names and prepare themselves for sneaking through immigration. There would be a guard at the airport—one they would know by a certain pin on his shirt—who would be complicit to their ruse and allow them through with the faux documents.

John said some of the men were nervous, fearful of being caught at such an early and relatively easy stage of the journey. But he was not, he says. The group dressed in their nicest clothes—they’d been told to bring clothes to “look good in” and clothes “to walk in”—so as to blend in with other travelers at the international airport. John breezed through immigration. At the gate, he ran into a childhood friend also waiting for a flight out.

As they boarded the flight, the coyotes warned them to beware, that when they landed in Guatemala City, there would be people holding signs with their names on them, claiming they were there to pick them up. But these people were not connected to the coyotes. They were people who surreptitiously obtained the names of those being smuggled by coyotes and if the person whose name they had came with them, they would be kidnapped and held for ransom from their families.

“They told us, don’t go with these people,” John said. “It was so crazy—I got off the plane and saw a man with a sign with my name. I walked past him. He asked me, ‘Are you [John]?’ and I said no.”

Guatemala

“Guatemala City was creepy,” John said of the crime-ridden metropolis. “It was a scary place.”

Holed up in a dingy hotel near the airport, the group rarely went outside as they set about preparing for the longest and most risky portion of their journey: across Mexico and to the U.S. border. Their authentic Ecuadorian passports and the fake Venezuelan ones they’d been given were shredded and flushed down the toilet, so as to erase any hard evidence of their South American origins. If they were caught after this point, the goal was to not be sent backward but to wait out release in Mexico and continue the journey.

The group traveled by trucks, avoiding official outposts. When crossing a river by boat, some of the men John was with handed over their belongings to men by the side of the river who said they would carry them across the river in another boat to keep them dry. When they got to the other side, the things, and all the money they carried with them in some cases, were gone. John’s money stayed safely tucked in his belt.

At the Guatemala-Mexico border searchlights scanned the dark scrubland desert. The truck the group was riding in stopped a short distance before the border, and John and the men he had been with since the beginning of the journey dashed through the darkness, dodging the sweeping beams of the searchlights and hoping that the moonlight would not betray them. Past guard towers they sneaked and made their way back to the roadway, where the truck waited.

They were in Mexico, just one searingly hot desert country away from the United States.

“The next day, they took us to a big trailer truck and put us in—maybe 100 people—men on the top, women on the bottom,” John recalled of how the most miserable day of his life began.

He pulled his knees up to his chest, wrapping his arms around his legs and resting his head on them, showing how the group stuffed themselves into the hidden compartments of the tractor-trailer. They sat that way for more than 24 hours, as the truck rumbled northward across Mexico, in searing 100-degree heat.

“There were moms with little kids. People from every country. You could smell the other people. It was so hot, really, really, really hot, like an oven. I couldn’t breathe.

“I started to close my eyes. The others told me, ‘No, don’t, we’re almost there.’ But I couldn’t. I passed out.”

Next week: Part two of John’s journey to a new life.

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So nice to see 27East and Michael Wright celebrating illegal immigration and the trashing of our laws.

Luckily our resources are so abundant that we no longer have any citizens who are in need and can relieve South and Central America of their excess population.
By MoronEliminator (214), Montauk on Sep 1, 14 4:18 PM
Yes, it would be so much better to pretend that this didn't happen, then to actually report about the people who everyone refers to so simply as "illegals". I'm not stating an opinion on what is right/wrong, but there's nothing wrong with documenting what's happening. That's what papers do, and it's impressive such a small paper would spend the time/energy/resources to report on things like this
By Nature (2966), Southampton on Sep 1, 14 7:27 PM
1 member liked this comment
We all better hope that these ISIL lunatics don't get to share the heart warming stories of sneaking into our country illegally too.
Perhaps John is a good guy. How do you know? As long as that border remains porous, the risk of a lot of bad people doing very bad things here is increased.
So this is a story of one man's journey. The thing is, once you substitute "John" with Jihadist, it's rather alarming.
By double standard (1506), Remsenburg on Sep 2, 14 7:04 AM
Terrorists had no problem coming here before 9/11... don't think that they have a problem coming here now. They will not be sneaking across the rio grande...
By Nature (2966), Southampton on Sep 2, 14 9:28 AM
Well I like to hold people to their word, and ISIS/ISIL have expressed interest in the southern border. We should take all threats seriously, and having an open border is a Natl security threat.
We either have borders or we don't. We either have immigration laws or we don't. This cherry pick, look the other way, importing cheap labor, import a future voter block stuff is nothing short of nonsense.
By double standard (1506), Remsenburg on Sep 2, 14 11:01 AM
1 member liked this comment
This is an amazing journey and story. However there is no doubt in my mind that what he did was not allowed by the State regulation and International Laws. Him and many more have and will cross the border of Mexico illegally through a painful trip. Why trying so hard sweating in the desert and in a semi truck??? Why???
For my visa I did not swim across the ocean or in a crowed boat people, all I had to do was flying to NYC, interview in companies, get a position as an intern, come back in my ...more
By WhitmanSampler (1), East Hampton on Sep 4, 14 11:14 PM
Future Stars, Fall programs, camps, kids,