The Guatemalan boy had no choice.
By the time he turned 14, gang members in his hometown of San José del Golfo had pressured him for years to join the notorious clique.
His options, he said, were to cave in or wind up dead.
"I didn’t want to die from a bullet," he said, recalling his thoughts more than a decade ago. "I didn’t want to kill someone [for them]. I want to make my dreams. That’s why I left Guatemala. I have to save my life."
Newsday is not naming the now 27-year-old Southampton man. He still has many relatives in his native country who live under the threat of gang violence.
In January 2008, he said last week, he reluctantly stuffed a backpack with three pairs of pants and three shirts. He had about $50 in his pocket when he tearfully kissed his mom goodbye.
He relied on hope during the more than 2,000-mile trek to the Mexico-U.S. border — inching closer to the safety of his seven older brothers in eastern Suffolk County — and the promise of the American dream.
"It was a hard life — I had to come to the United States," he said.
There were times in Guatemala he couldn’t afford shoes. But on the day he headed north as an unaccompanied minor, he wore gray-and-white sneakers his mother bought him.
This man's journey to the United States is among the stories of Latinos on Long Island that Newsday is spotlighting during National Hispanic Heritage Month.
Though he acknowledges entering the country illegally, he says he is on the cusp of U.S. citizenship, after having passed the requisite exam last month.
But officials have yet to schedule his swearing-in ceremony, the final step in the naturalization process. He hopes it will happen in time to cast a ballot in the Nov. 3 presidential election.
The pandemic, however, may wipe away that possibility.
"I want to vote. I want my vote to count. I want to help pick a leader who will help this country," he said. "It’s been something I’ve been dreaming about since I was young."
Although federal immigration officials don’t comment on specific cases, they said COVID-19 prompted U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to halt naturalization ceremonies in mid-March. The ceremonies resumed at an office in Holtsville on June 23, officials said.
The most recent data available shows pending naturalization cases on Long Island spiked by nearly 22% between Jan. 1 and the end of March 2020 compared with the same period last year.
Cases jumped to 11,586 this year compared with 9,531 cases through March 2019, according to federal data. Overall, 1,714 people on Long Island were granted citizenship through the end of March 2020, compared with 3,148 cases last year during the same period.
Dan Hetlage, a spokesman with USCIS, said in a statement: "The women and men of USCIS proudly naturalize thousands of potential new voters on a daily basis. In 2019, USCIS naturalized 834,000 new citizens which was the highest amount of naturalizations in 11 years. USCIS’ 2020 production was impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. … Despite these unprecedented challenges and a three month suspension of in-person services, USCIS estimates we’ll have naturalized approximately 600,000 citizens this fiscal year."
While living in Suffolk County, the Southampton man became a father twice over and overcame illiteracy in English and Spanish to graduate from Southampton High School in 2014, he said. He has worked jobs washing dishes and cleaning bathrooms.
He also obtained authorization from the government for permanent residency and a green card in 2015, he said.
He recalled spending nearly five days with no food and sleeping nights in the frigid Arizona desert in April 2008, only to be detained by border agents after a harrowing monthslong migration.
He spent multiple days in immigration lockup before he was put on a plane — the first flight of his life — bound for government custody in Florida, he said. There, immigration personnel treated him well, feeding him and giving him proper health care, he said.
Immigration officials eventually reached his relatives on Long Island. The teen’s American sister-in law stepped up to be his parental custodian, which was approved by the government, he said. His brother then booked him a flight to Kennedy Airport.
Now safe from gangs and on the precipice of citizenship, he speaks fondly about his life on Long Island. His prized possession is a pickup with 230,000 miles he bought for $1,000. He marvels at owning multiple pairs of shoes.
He kept the now raggedy gray-and-white sneakers he wore during his odyssey through Mexico.
His journey made him a better American.
"Those experiences make me more strong — and proud," he said. "If I want to do something, I can do it."