Gilberto was 13 when he saw his life slipping away.

A group of gang members in Guatemala had cornered Gilberto in an alley and held a gun to his stomach. The only reason they didn’t kill him was because there were witnesses nearby, Gilberto told CBS News.

“The gangs there were threatening me because I was a religious person, and they wanted me to sell drugs in school, and I didn’t want to do it,” said Gilberto, now 20.

A devout evangelical Christian, Gilberto said he spent much of his time outside school hours participating in church programs designed to provide young people in his working-class community a spiritual alternative to gang violence. There’s a video showing 11-year-old Gilberto participating in a reenactment of “Little Red Riding Hood,” portraying a wolf who epitomized the dangers of gang life.

Gilberto’s church activities placed him in the crosshairs of MS-13 gang members at a young age. It started when he was hit with rocks and beaten up at school, but the persecution escalated as Gilberto grew older and refused to give in to the gang members’ demands, which included selling dulces, or sweets, a codename for illicit drugs.

That fateful encounter in the alley was the final straw for Gilberto and his father, who had been living in the U.S. since 2005. 

In May 2014, Gilberto fled his home in the outskirts of Guatemala City, hoping to find safety on U.S. soil.

“I was forced to come to the United States, because if I would’ve stayed in Guatemala, I would’ve been killed there,” Gilberto said.

“A perfect storm”

Hundreds of thousands of unaccompanied migrant children have reached the U.S. southern border in the past decade, and both Republican and Democratic administrations have struggled to process the minors, who have special protections under U.S. law.

Between October 2012 and March 2020, U.S. officials at the southern border encountered 494,000 unaccompanied migrant children, according to a CBS News analysis of government data.

Some, like Gilberto, have fled the gang violence that plagues some parts of Central America. Others trek north to escape domestic abuse. Many teenagers leave impoverished areas, like Guatemala’s indigenous communities, to find work and try to lift their families out of poverty. 

Some make the trip to the U.S.-Mexico border alone or with the help of smugglers. Others arrive with family members who are not their parents, rendering them “unaccompanied children” in the eyes of the U.S. government. Most have family members living in the U.S., including parents eager to reunite with them.

In March, 18,900 unaccompanied minors entered U.S. custody, a record monthly high. The historic increase has created dire humanitarian challenges for the Biden administration, which has been scrambling to transfer children out of ill-suited Border Patrol facilities and into makeshift shelters. 

In addition to deeply rooted poverty and violence, Central American communities have been coping with hunger, the coronavirus pandemic and the effects of back-to-back hurricanes last year. Smugglers have also been telling Central American families and youth that they have a better chance to enter the U.S. now that President Biden has replaced Donald Trump in the White House.

About 84% of the unaccompanied minors encountered at the southern border in March were from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, according to government data. A lawyer who recently interviewed Central American children in U.S. custody said they described “a perfect storm of push factors.”

While arrivals of unaccompanied minors have reached record highs in the past months, the U.S. government has confronted similar situations before. When Gilberto fled Guatemala in 2014, the Obama administration faced what was then a record rise in arrivals of unaccompanied migrant youth. 

“I saw a lot of horrible things”

Gilberto in an interview with CBS News.

CBS News

Gilberto said he still occasionally has panic attacks about his journey to the U.S.-Mexico border.

“It was terrible because I saw a lot of horrible things,” he said, remembering how he witnessed migrant girls being sexually assaulted in Mexico.

Gilberto himself was kidnapped in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas after the coyote he was traveling with abandoned him. After being released, he crossed the U.S. border with other migrants. But he was not apprehended by Border Patrol agents, unlike the rest of the group.

Then 13 years old, Gilberto said he wandered south Texas alone, looking for anyone who could help him. He ultimately was able to borrow a phone at a car repair shop, which he used to call his father, who called a coyote. A man picked up Gilberto later that day and took him to a small room.

Gilberto was kidnapped for a second time. The coyote demanded money from Gilberto’s father in exchange for his release. Gilberto said he was held against his will for about a month. He remembered the unbearable heat, as well as the thirst and hunger he experienced while kidnapped. 

“I was starving,” Gilberto said, explaining that he was only fed soup once a week.

After being released, Gilberto and other migrants were found by Texas police. The migrant teenager remembered being taken to a hospital due to cramps he experienced after being given real food for the first time in weeks.

Gilberto was transferred to a shelter in Houston overseen by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is responsible for housing unaccompanied minors. In July 2014, he was released and allowed to fly to Los Angeles to reunite with his father.

“I had gone like 9 years without seeing my dad,” Gilberto said. “I couldn’t believe it because a couple months ago, I was in Guatemala, fearing for my life. It was like a dream for me.”

“A miracle”

After reuniting with his father, Gilberto learned English in Southern California. In 2019, he graduated from a Los Angeles area high school and is now hoping to become a firefighter.

“I feel thankful with this country because they gave me a lot of new opportunities,” he said. “I feel a need of giving back.”

Most importantly, Gilberto became eligible to apply for U.S. citizenship this month. He has this opportunity because the U.S. government granted him asylum in 2016 based on the persecution he suffered in Guatemala. 

About 90,000 unaccompanied children from Central America who arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border between between 2013 and 2019 have been granted asylum or other relief from deportation, like visas for minors who were abused, neglected or abandoned by their parents, according to government figures

More than 50% of the Central American unaccompanied minors who came to the southern border in 2014 like Gilberto have been allowed to stay in the U.S. on a permanent basis, a much higher rate than for adult migrants and families with children.

Linda Dakin-Grimm, an immigration lawyer who helped Gilberto file his asylum application, said his story underscores the importance of the legal safeguards Congress established for migrant children. She expressed pride at seeing the skinny and shy teen she met in 2015, still traumatized by his experiences, grow into a young man with a commitment to help others.

“Our laws are in place to protect every child and to protect their dignity, and to do what the world has long recognized is right for suffering human beings,” Dakin-Grimm told CBS News. 

Gilberto still thinks about the trials he faced as a child, from the gang violence in Guatemala, to the kidnappings at the U.S-Mexico border.

“The fact that I’m here is a miracle,” he said. “I could’ve died on my way here.”