After spending a month and a half in Ecuador with a host family through the program Amigos de las Americas, Megan Levan got a personal taste of immigration issues in the United States.
Upon arriving home, she heard that her host uncle Geovanny, who she did not get a chance to meet during her stay in Ecuador, had been detained 30 minutes after arriving in the U.S. and was being held in Orange County. Shortly after learning so from her host family, Levan arranged to visit him at the James A. Musick Detention Center where he was being detained.
“[The detention center] was more sad than anything else because most of the people who were in the detention center were dads,” Levan said. “Their kids and their wives were coming to visit them; there were families that were broken apart.”
She was surprised by the level of strictness of the detention center when she visited.
“You couldn’t bring anything in with you except for your driver’s license,” Levan said. “I couldn’t bring in any pencils or paper to write down anything he was telling us and I couldn’t bring in pictures that I got developed from Costco of his family and kids.”
During the three and a half month period that Geovanny was detained, Levan communicated with him often through visits, letters, and phone calls. She served as the middle man between Geovanny and her host family while he was in the detention center because a phone call to Ecuador would cost $22 for four minutes, Levan had learned from Geovanny. In a small town in Ecuador, $22 is many hours of picking peas in the fields, she said.
“We put some money in his account so he could use it [to call his family] if he wanted [since it was a lot of money for him], but he used it for buying letters and stuff instead,” she said.
While she was helping Geovanny, Levan ran into issues with immigration lawyers. Her host mother’s brother-in-law, Angel, attempted to hire lawyers from his home in New York to defend Geovanny in his trial; however, the lawyers never showed up or called Geovanny.
“He sent them money,” Levan said. “That is actually the main thing that really enraged me because all of these people who are in such desperate situations are totally getting taken advantage of.”
She attempted to get in contact with the lawyers but was unsuccessful.
“There’s a whole business of these people who prey on people who are desperate and don’t know what to do,” she said. “I think that is the most eye-opening thing that I experienced because I was trying to help Geovanny but it was hard to find people who were honest.”
After communicating with more lawyers, Levan eventually found one she considered trustworthy, but learned that there wasn’t much she could do. Geovanny had already been to court before Levan had met him and was already set to be deported after a confusing hearing in which Geovanny accidentally told the judge that his house had been destroyed in an earthquake that had occurred earlier in Ecuador.
Despite learning such news, she continued to visit and communicate with him.
“Generally people can only stay here if there’s good reason, especially with the really strict judge that they had in this area, but I sent him books and I went and visited him to keep him company,” Levan said. “I tried to do everything I could to make his stay as nice as it could be even though he was stuck in the detention center.”
When first learning of Geovanny’s problem in the fall, Levan had felt that she needed to help him because she had grown close with his family in Ecuador.
“I hung out with his family every day in Ecuador,” Levan said. “They all came over to [my host family’s] house every single day.”
While Levan was in Ecuador, she would hear her host family worry about him. Geovanny had left only a little bit before she had arrived.
“They always talked about him and they were really worried about him because they couldn’t get in contact with him,” Levan said. They had lost contact after he had crossed the border from Mexico into the U.S.
After about two and a half months in Orange County, Geovanny was moved to Louisiana for a couple of days and then sent back to Ecuador.
Levan spoke about her experience at a TEDx Encinitas event in April.
“My story kind of tells a story that people don’t usually hear,” she said. “Normally if we’re hearing an immigration story it’s usually someone who came to the US and made it eventually. It might’ve been hard and they might’ve been deported and come back, but you don’t usually hear about the people who get deported and stay deported, stay in their country.”