Leyva hatched a desperate plan. He found smugglers willing to guide Dominga, Luis and Amor through the high desert. The smugglers wondered: Was it even illegal to smuggle U.S. citizens into their own country? The risks would be lower — they just needed to get the family to Nogales, not through the checkpoints farther inland. They offered a discounted fee: $500.
Much of the money for the trip came from a most unexpected source.
Every day in late spring of 2011, giant construction cranes rose above the border. Hard-hatted U.S. government contractors were tearing down the border fence to make way for a taller barrier. Every day, they flung pieces of the old fence into Mexico, where frenzied mobs vied for the scraps.
Some people used the metal panels to build shanties. Luis and Leyva had other ideas. Scrap was selling for two pesos per kilo, so each 80-pound sheet could fetch about $8 from recyclers. It would take a small mountain of scrap, but they could start.
Each day they awoke at 2 a.m. and walked into the hills toward the construction site. When they came upon a fence panel, each would grab a jagged end and haul it to a waiting recycling truck. Then they would scramble back into the unruly line for a chance at another piece.
Three miles of fencing was replaced. Luis and Leyva shadowed the crews almost the entire way.
The two smugglers kept a fast pace through the canyons of the Pajarito Mountains. Luis struggled to keep up, his arms sagging under the weight of his 20-month-old sister. He looked back and saw his grandmother illuminated under the crescent moon, her labored breathing drowned out by the rustling of mesquite bushes. She was hobbling on her arthritic knee, clutching her purse, which contained their birth certificates.
Leyva had stayed behind, holding back tears as he watched them get into the smugglers' van. He would try some other day, he promised.
The men kept their flashlight beams low. Luis remembered their instructions: Don't talk, don't look at anyone on the trail and, if U.S. Border Patrol agents appear, claim to be lost hikers.
For nearly two days, they walked under craggy ridges and limestone bluffs. Luis never slept, fearing the smugglers would abandon them. At times, Amor's cries pierced the silence. Luis would play with her to calm her down under the impatient stares of the smugglers.
The smugglers were edgy for good reason. A few months earlier, bandits had ambushed a squad of U.S. Border Patrol agents, killing one. The smugglers had already stumbled upon one standoff between groups of Mexicans. They kept their cool and led the family down the trail, away from trouble.
When the group emerged from Peña Blanca Canyon in the predawn darkness, a car was waiting for them near a small lake. They jumped in and sped out of the wilderness, passing a sign on the twisting road: "Smuggling and illegal immigration may be encountered in this area."
The smugglers dropped the family at a Food City supermarket in Nogales, Ariz. Luis watched his grandmother count out 75 pennies from her pocket, all they had left for food.
A year later, she is still counting her pennies. The family lives in a creaky single-wide trailer on the edge of Nogales, the rent partly covered by disability benefits Dominga received since her arthritic knee gave out.
Earning money at a car wash on North Grand Avenue, Luis regained weight eating fast-food burgers and pizza. He was baptized into a local Mormon church, where volunteers had provided food and clothing after the family's desert journey. Last month, he entered Nogales High School in Arizona. He has his high school identification card and birth certificate to identify him as a U.S. citizen.
Twice a week, he crosses the border to Mexico, clutching grocery bags filled with fresh meat and vegetables. Waiting for him on one such visit was Leyva, wearing a crumpled cap and a weary smile. Only a few days had passed since Luis last saw Leyva, but he looked even skinnier.
His step-grandfather still couldn't find steady work, even after passing his sixth-grade equivalency test, which he incorrectly believed would make him eligible for a job in a factory assembling goods for export into the U.S.
The American teenager and the Mexican peasant walked through downtown, up a steep dirt path to the hillside shack where Leyva lived. Leyva fired up the oven top, grilled the meat and stuffed it into a tortilla. He gave the first one to Luis and prepared another for him.
"No. Save the food for yourself," Luis remembers telling Leyva.
Luis and Leyva talked about school, and about Dominga and Amor, as the sun dipped over the shanties. After a while, they walked quietly down the hill and said their brief goodbyes at the border fence. Then Leyva turned and climbed back up the hillside, and Luis walked down North Grand Avenue into Arizona.
Read from from The Times series: Without a Country