Cesar was only six years old when he began working in the fields alongside other Guatemalan children who had to help their struggling families. He said the work was hard and he was falling behind in school, but he didn't have a choice after his father was killed two years earlier.
"Everything sort of fell apart because he was a father that always led by example, that would always help you and fight for you, so for me it was very sad and as the years went on, it got even harder," Cesar said from Baltimore, where he ended up after making the dangerous journey north in search of better opportunities and a safer life.
Cesar, now 20, whose last name was withheld to protect his identity, fled his native country of Guatemala when he was 17 in 2011. He is one of thousands of Central American young people who have recently migrated to the United States, straining the system in place to deal with undocumented immigrants.
Under U.S. law, unaccompanied minors from Central America may not be deported immediately and must undergo an immigration hearing.
More than 50,000 such minors have been apprehended at the border this year.
To ease the crisis, President Obama on Tuesday asked Congress for $3.7 billion in emergency spending to cope with what he has described as a humanitarian emergency on the country's southern border.
Poverty, violence and drug gangs plague countries such as Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, and Cesar said his small village was no exception. He said "bad people" roamed the village, engaging in robberies and threatening the community with violence. When his brother left due to such threats, he stayed behind with his mother for a couple of years, living in fear and often without electricity, before he decided to set off for the United States.
"For me, that was very hard," Cesar said. "All mothers want the best for their kids but sometimes they simply don't have the options."
"It was terrible. I don’t wish it on anyone."
Cesar's journey to the U.S. border took 22 days, and he described each of them as "scary." Without food or water, he slept wherever he could, which was often on the ground and under an open sky.
"It was terrible. I don’t wish it on anyone. I lived it and I have it in my heart as a huge experience," he said, adding that it was too risky to go out and buy food, even if one had money.
"You had to defend yourself or hide so no one would see you or grab you," he said.
The next obstacle Cesar faced were the waters of the Rio Grande.
"The river is very dangerous. Many people have died there," he said. "On the surface, it looks OK but underneath it’s vicious."
Cesar said he also encountered kidnappers waiting near the U.S. border with Mexico. He’d already been robbed on the way north from Guatemala, and had no bribe to offer — but the armed men still held him for three days.
When he finally made it across the border, Cesar was detained by authorities. At a facility in Houston, Texas, he was interrogated by officials about his background and then transferred to Corpus Christi, Texas, where he said he received food, clothes, and was able to take classes.
After several weeks there, he was transferred to the custody of an uncle in Maryland while his deportation case moved through the system. Now 20 years old, Cesar plans to graduate from high school next year.
He also said he hopes officials won't send him back to Guatemala once his case is resolved.
"I’d go back to the life from before and I don’t want to do that again," he said. "Since I escaped it, I don’t want to go back to it. I want to look forward."
First published July 8 2014, 5:13 PM