July 29, 2010 -- Juan Garcia talks openly about his illicit, harrowing overnight excursion through the Sonoran desert from Mexico into Arizona.
"I was very, very afraid," said Garcia, in elementary English, of the night he and a dozen others set out, walking single-file through the sand. "I didn't know what was going to happen after I walked five miles from where I was." He was 16 at the time.
Two human smugglers, so-called "coyotes," led the way through the frigid February darkness to the U.S. border, Garcia said. He had paid $500 down and would owe $1,800 more on the other side, if he made it.
"I didn't know if they would hit me or kill me or if I was going to die," he said, "but I didn't have a choice."
Garcia and an estimated one million Mexican migrants who entered the U.S. via the southwest border in 2006, the peak of illegal crossings there, have been at the heart of the immigration debate in Arizona, where a federal judge yesterday blocked parts of the state's new immigration law.
Sixty-two percent of all illegal immigrants in the U.S. are from Mexico, including roughly 460,000 who live in Arizona. But statistics show the human flow from Mexico has slowed significantly in recent years, due to a down economy and stepped up enforcement, officials say.
Immigration opponents say Garcia and other undocumented Mexican migrants are taking American jobs and "draining" the economy by sending wages home to their families instead of spending dollars here.
But Garcia, now 20 and living in Atlanta, said the decision to leave his home in the southwest Mexican state of Oaxaca was a desperate one, following the sudden death of his father in a bicycle accident just three months before.
With limited job opportunities for young teens and scant savings from his father's knife-sharpening business, Garcia said migrating to the U.S. was the best chance to provide for his three siblings.
"I was the one who had to concentrate on feeding them and taking care of them," he said.
Four years later, Garcia says America has transformed his life.
The recent high school graduate who has been living with an adoptive family he met through a concerned public school teacher says his goal in the U.S. is now no longer simply to send money to Mexico -- it's to make the country he's come to love a better place.
The Dangerous Walk, Alongside Drug Gangs and Cartels
Juan's illicit journey, which began in the remote desert corridor south of Tucson, Arizona, highlights the influential role of smugglers in facilitating U.S. illegal immigration.
Authorities say most Mexican migrants who enter the U.S. illegally on foot are assisted by "coyotes," who navigate chains of "customers" through dangerous desert terrain shared by drug and gun traffickers to a series of hideouts inside the U.S.
The covert guides, skilled in evading detection by U.S. authorities, demand a code of secrecy and keep close control over the whereabouts of those they help once inside the U.S. until fees have been paid, sources familiar with the operations say.
"The coyotes know all the paths, they know where you are," said Garcia. "If you pay more money you can get here easier; but if you pay less money you can walk for a week or two weeks."
An estimated 454 immigrants died trying to cross the southwest border in 2006, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. More than 3,800 have died in the attempt in last decade.
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."