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Story - News

Sep 2, 2014 4:35 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

John's Journey From Ecuador To The U.S., Part 2

Sep 3, 2014 8:50 AM

This is part two of the story; part one was published last week.

When you’re being smuggled into the United States by the professional human traffickers known as “coyotes,” $12,000 gets you three chances to get across the border and vanish. That means that if you’re caught by immigration officials from the United States, or any other country along the journey, your crusade gets two re-starts, from whatever country you are returned to.

For the coyotes, having their wards caught by immigration officials is part of the job, a detour some inevitably have to take.

So when the smuggler driving the station wagon carrying John and two other Ecuadorian men noticed an Immigration and Customs Enforcement patrol car coming up behind them as they drove through Laredo, Texas, just blocks from the U.S. border with Mexico, the driver calmly pulled the car over to the curb.

“He didn’t say anything to us at all, he just got out and he ran,” John—now a legal U.S. resident, living in Southampton, who asked that his real name not be used for fear of harassment—recalled on a recent morning.

He’s 22, tall and thin, with his thick jet-black hair impeccably coiffed in either a swooping pompadour or bristling spikes. He has a girlfriend, a good job, a nice car, a hefty savings account, a promising music career—and a plan to return to his native Ecuador permanently within a few years to open his own restaurant.

But on that day, just over the border in Texas, he was a 15-year-old illegal immigrant who had floated across the Rio Grande on a raft made of car inner tubes a few days earlier. He was on American soil—in fact, closer to it than he had ever intended to be, with his face pressed against the hot Texas asphalt.

“They put us on the ground,” John recalled, “and I said to one of the guys, ‘We should just run.’ We started to get up, but they pulled out guns and told us not to move. After that, they took our shoes.”

A paddy wagon came, and the teen and the men he was with were roughly tossed into the back, with a few deliberately stinging blows from the officers, as John recalls. He had traveled with these same men for months, and thousands of miles, from Ecuador to Colombia to Guatemala to Mexico, and now into the back of that paddy wagon in Texas.

After that, John was on his own.

He was 15, and none of the other Ecuadorian men were related to him, so John was taken to a special holding cell for unaccompanied minors. The now infamous “border kids” numbered in the few hundreds at any given time in those days—not the tens of thousands who have sparked social and political sparring today.

John and six other kids were at the ICE detention center in Laredo. Where they went next depended on what country they were from.


A week earlier, John had nearly died of dehydration at the age of 15 in the back of a sealed tractor-trailer truck as it rumbled through the searing summer of heat of central Mexico, stuffed with more than 100 people.

He’d come to, pulled out of the truck just in time. Unlike many others in his position, including some children like him, he had survived to tackle the next leg of his illicit journey to the United States.

The first step was to become Mexican. His native Ecuadorian passport had been destroyed before he entered Mexico, and now, if he were caught, his main mission would be to convince whatever authority figure who had his collar that he was a Mexican. That way he would be deported back to Mexico, instead of all the way back to Ecuador, making a second, and possibly a third, attempt at getting into the United States illegally easier.

“You had to learn everything like Mexicans,” he said. “The president, history, what they eat, everything. The coyotes, they would ask us questions, a test. They’re not going to send you until you’re ready. If you get sent back to Ecuador, it is bad for them too—they lose money.”

After a week of waiting in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, it was time for John and his companions to try the border.

Along some parts of the Mexican border, the Rio Grande is a shallow stream, able to be dashed across without wetting one’s shirt. But where it separates Laredo and Nuevo Laredo, it is wide and deep. It is also remote, and patrolling all of it is difficult with the staff dedicated to border protection. So federal Customs and Border Protection officers rely on remote cameras to keep watch on vast stretches of the river.

The coyotes, however, know the cameras well, and know how to time their crossings to avoid their gaze, even at midday. Crouching in the thick scrublands that line the river, John and the five other men waited for the signal. On the other side was a house, just yards from the river—that was their destination.

A city kid from central Ecuador, John did not know how to swim. The men he was with did. Their meager bags of clothes were stacked atop the three car tire inner tubes that were to be their only vehicle for crossing the river. John went on top of the tubes as well, and into the water the island of rubber, cotton and flesh went.

“The men were swimming hard. I was just sitting, like this,” John said, placing his hands behind his head and kicking back in the booth of the restaurant where he now waits tables. “When we got across, we got dressed and hid in the bushes. When they told us it was okay, we ran to a house. In the house, there were a lot of people. That night, trucks started coming.”

Each truck, mostly plain-looking delivery-type trucks, would pull up to the house and take three or four people, concealed in the back. They were in the United States now, but so close to the border that the city’s entire fringe was a battle zone against illegal immigration. ICE patrols rolled the streets day and night, on the lookout for suspicious people or vehicles.


John had never been to McDonald’s—he didn’t even know what it was, until the morning he got into a car with one of the coyotes for the last leg of the path to freedom in America. He sat in the front seat, while two other men concealed themselves in the back. The coyote was to drive them out of Laredo, to the last stop of the trip over the border. From there, the men, and the 15-year-old boy, were each on their own.

The coyote stopped at McDonald’s. John had his first taste of a Quarter Pounder with Cheese. The coyote told him not to tell the others hiding behind them. “But I saved half of my burger and gave it to the guys who had been taking care of me,” John recalled. “We were like friends now.”

Then the ICE patrol car pulled up behind them.

John spent three days in a holding cell with other underage children caught trying to sneak into the United States. It was a cold place, and they were given only water and some bread to eat.

The questions about his origins came fast and hard. Questions about Mexico. Threats, to a 15-year-old, that he would be “killed” if he were lying. Despite the coaching by the coyotes, many of the kids cracked. But not John. He remembered the details he’d been taught about Mexico and stuck to his story. He saw a dry-erase board in a hallway one day with his name and “Mexico” written next to it.

But he started hearing stories from other kids who had done the drill. They’d been sent back to Mexico, and the coyotes hadn’t been there to pick them up like they were supposed to, and they were left in dangerous and scary environs. Suddenly, John had second thoughts. He wanted to go back to where he knew he’d be safe.

He called a guard and told him he was from Ecuador.

The next day, he left for Houston. Kids being sent back to Mexico were held in the dank, cold detention center near the border, basically a jail, for a short period before they could be put on a bus back across the border. But those from Central America and South America are more difficult to deport, so they were taken to a special complex in Houston to await the often weeks-long deportation process, and a direct flight back.

“I got there and saw the kids in line getting food, and I thought it was jail, and I was scared,” John recalled. “But when I went inside, there was a very nice lady who spoke Spanish. They gave me clothes. The people were nice. We would take a class to learn English, they would give us snacks and we could play. When kids would leave, they would be crying and hugging the people who worked there.”

John said that landing in that facility was the best thing that happened to him on the entire journey.

Home In The Hamptons?

Meanwhile, John’s parents living in East Hampton had been notified by the coyotes that he was in the United States but had been caught by customs police. They hired a lawyer.

John spent a month in Houston while his parents’ lawyer worked to arrange legal immigration for him. He was adopted by a family friend, and thus allowed to remain in the United States.

John was one of the lucky ones.

One day, John and a customs official boarded a plane in Houston together and flew to La Guardia Airport, where his family waited.

“I saw my mom first—she was crying,” John said, his own eyes welling. “I hugged her. My dad was standing next to us—he was in shock. I had wanted to see him so much, since I had been living with his parents my whole life.”

John spoke no English. He was of the age that he should have been starting 10th grade, but because of his language difficulties, East Hampton High School placed him in ninth grade English as a second language classes. John, who now speaks essentially perfect English with a clear, lyrical Spanish accent, says he found school easy. Ecuador, he thinks, was actually better educationally for its children, because it was less forgiving: “Here, the facilities are better, but the kids, they scream at the teachers. In Ecuador, they’d kick you out.”

John also started working almost immediately, busing tables until his English got good enough to be a waiter, which meant making more money. Since day one he’s been saving his money, stashing it in a bank account, with the goal of returning someday to Ecuador and an easier life.

The vision is the same one his parents took with them when they left their 1-year-old son behind 21 years ago. Last year, with one of John’s grandmothers ailing, they again left their eldest child behind and returned to Cuenca, Ecuador. The move will be permanent, because they were not in the United States legally. John’s brother is a U.S. citizen but plans to remain in Ecuador permanently himself.

John’s few hours of leisure time come mostly late at night after work and have been focused almost entirely toward his music. Reggaeton, the form of music he specializes in, has grown in popularity in the United States, with the swelling Latino population, and John’s original songs and homemade garage band videos have caught the ear of music producers. At a concert at Madison Square Garden recently, he was acknowledged by some of the biggest names in Reggaeton, while he stood stage-side.

“When they said my name, that was amazing, it felt so good,” John beamed, but with the caveat that fame is not really on his agenda. “I don’t want to be famous. If it happens, it happens, but I’m not crazy for it. It’s hard to be famous. My way of thinking is different because of how I grew up.”

That way of thinking has him with two goals in mind: returning to Ecuador, and raising a family that will never be far from him. Two or three more busy summers of waiting tables, and he guesses he’ll have a nest egg large enough to return to the cheap living of Ecuador, open his restaurant and live a comfortable life.

If he were to lose his job, he says, he’d be on a plane for Ecuador the next day.

“I don’t like life here. I want to make a lot of money and just go back,” he says, harking to his seven-day work week. “If I stay here, I will just have to work every day like I do now.

“I want to have everything already when I have my family, so I have time for them,” he said. “My parents gave me everything, but they were not with me.”0

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This comment has been removed because it is a duplicate, off-topic or contains inappropriate content.
By MoronEliminator (214), Montauk on Sep 6, 14 5:25 PM
Breaking the law sending untaxed money across the border, and using our roads, and infastructure. The majority of illegals are here to send back money and contribute little. This guy doesn't like it here he just wants to steal some quick money. Why is it so hard to understand that illegal aliens have no interest in a future here. Get out if u don't like it here!
By chief1 (2765), southampton on Sep 6, 14 6:02 PM
1 member liked this comment
How do you know the "majority" are here to send back money and contribute little? Why don't you consider for one moment "why" they risk their lives to get here and "why" they send money "home". Would you not do the same if you were in their shoes? Would you not wish to go "home" to be with your family if you could and were able to live comfortably or would you rather stay here being called an "illegal" for the rest of you life even once you became a citizen. There is no doubt having people cross ...more
By Infoseeker (279), Hampton Bays on Sep 7, 14 9:01 AM
I could care less why they come here> get on the tax rolls and pay a little into the system you take from. I cant carry people who dont pay their way. Its killing me!
By squeaky (291), hampton bays on Sep 7, 14 8:36 PM
By MoronEliminator (214), Montauk on Sep 7, 14 11:03 AM
They are breaking the law plain and simple. We know they send back billions a week with little taxes collected. Why don't you go to Hampton Bays or Riverhead and see for yourself all the people westen unioning money to their country? I really don't care why they come here we have plenty of people here who live in poverty and have problems.
Why doesn't Mr Wright do a story on how much money is stolen from Southampton Hospital for all the babies born to illegals. Or how much that cost the ...more
By chief1 (2765), southampton on Sep 7, 14 12:07 PM
The amount sent to Mexico from individual is about 25 billion
By Mr. Calm (3), Hampton bays on Sep 8, 14 10:16 AM
The federal income tax problem could be eliminated. Every person sending money out of the US must have 20% deducted and sent to the IRS with the SS number. They can redeem it when they file their federal tax form in April
Congress refuses to pass this law.
By Mr. Calm (3), Hampton bays on Sep 8, 14 10:21 AM
One note with regard to John specifically: he has a SS# and has taxes deducted from his weekly pay, including federal income tax and social security (though it would appear that he will never claim benefits).
By Michael Wright (25), Southampton on Sep 10, 14 12:22 AM
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