Smuggled by 'Coyotes': An Immigrant's Journey to Arizona

However, for those fortunate enough to survive like Garcia, reaching the U.S. is only half the battle.

Once they cross into Cochise County, in Arizona's southeast corner, the migrants must move quickly with help from the "coyotes" to hide in a network of safehouses, until unmarked vans pick up the migrants and disperse them farther north.

"We came to a little house with a white family that had 10 old cars from like the '70s in the yard," Garcia said of the first landmark he encountered on the U.S. side of the border. "They said you could stay under the car or wherever you can hide."

But Garcia and the migrants didn't hide for long, he said, before being shuttled north to another safehouse in a Tucson suburb, where they lived temporarily while paying off an $1,800 "mountain."

"We couldn't find jobs, so we did what we could do, like clean the stadium and clean people's houses for that time until we could find a job," he said. "The first thing I did was pay him when I could...If I didn't pay, they would bully my family for the money. That's why I really wanted to pay him."

Arizona Gateway to America, Atlanta Booming

Garcia told ABC News that his real American journey began after he paid off his debt, when he joined a caravan of migrants in a week-long drive from Arizona to Atlanta, where he moved in with an uncle.

Georgia has become a magnet for undocumented immigrants, including many entering through the Arizona gateway, and documented the greatest boom in illegal immigration over the past decade, according to government statistics for the states.

The undocumented immigration population in Georgia has grown 115 percent since 2000, nearly three times faster than in Arizona, to an estimated total of 480,000 in 2009.

Garcia, who found work assembling housing frames at a lumber company in a northern Atlanta suburb, says the biggest draw for migrants is an abundance of jobs for low-skilled labor. He has been able to earn a substantial wage, working 60 hours a week and sending cash home to his family in Mexico twice a month.

But the real turning point in his life, Garcia says, has not been his father's death or the decision to come to the U.S. Rather, it was the choice to enroll in a high school in Gwinnett County, Georgia, where he learned English and the power of "generosity."

Now, out of a job but with a diploma in hand, Garcia says he plans to enroll in online college courses to pursue a new dream of being a nurse. He said he wants to "help others who need help."

"I didn't come to the United States to study or go to school. I came to earn money and get a better life for my family," he said. "But people have been so good to me and I want to help people too."

More stories from ABC News' special series "Out of the Shadows: Illegal Immigration in America"

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