The immigration judge's question was simple: "Why should I let you stay?"

Leo Guardado had arrived illegally in Los Angeles as a 9-year-old boy, fleeing with his mother from their war-torn village in El Salvador. But by 2001 he was a college freshman, tired of hiding his immigration status from classmates and professors. And he was painfully aware that without a green card, he wouldn't be able work legally no matter how many degrees he earned.

So he and his mother decided to emerge from the shadows and seek legal sanctuary.

"I volunteer, I'm involved in the school, I'm involved in community, I do service, I'm going to college," Guardado told the judge. "I don't have a criminal record. I don't plan on having one. I will pay taxes when I actually can work."

He told judge Henry Ipema that he had finished second in his class at a prestigious Catholic high school in Los Angeles and earned a full scholarship to St. Mary's College of California. He laid out his life plan if allowed to stay in the U.S.

"I'll be a model citizen in ways that many citizens aren't," Guardado said. "I've proven that already without being a citizen."

In a rare occurrence in the U.S. immigration system, the judge granted them political asylum, and legal residency.

"He could have easily said, 'Great story, I feel for you but you've broken the law, please go back to El Salvador,' " Guardado said. "My future would have been vastly different."

In the decade since that decisive day - Dec. 22, 2001 - Guardado has lived up to the promise he made the judge. And his journey from the lush mountains of El Salvador through California, Indiana, New York and Europe has now brought him to Tucson.

At 29, he is the social ministry director at Most Holy Trinity Catholic Church, 1300 N. Greasewood Road.

An articulate, thoughtful and compassionate young man who is open about sharing his story as a former undocumented immigrant, Guardado seems out of central casting as an emerging leader in the nation's hot spot for border and immigration issues.

When faith-based leaders were deciding whether to offer sanctuary to a Tucson man facing deportation earlier this month, the Rev. Bill Remmel of the Most Holy Trinity Catholic Church gave Guardado a seat at the table.

"I really trust his judgment," Remmel said. "He's got such a good head on his shoulders."

Yet Guardado may be gone just as Tucson gets to know him. He is seriously considering life as a Trappist monk at a California monastery where he spent 10 months in 2005-2006.

Salvadoran childhood

A life of solitude and stillness may seem a peculiar choice for a man who has built his career on helping others. To understand the draw, you must go back to his childhood in the tiny village of Canton Tobias in northwest El Salvador.

Tucked into a mountainous region of El Salvador known as Chalatenango, Guardado's village of about 100 people was a place of peaceful jungles and a bloody civil war.

He climbed trees and swam in rivers. He enjoyed a simple life without running water or electricity. But he is haunted by memories of bodies in the street.

When he was nearing his 10th birthday - the age at which the guerrillas and government army were drafting boys - he and his mother fled.

Of their 26-day trek to Los Angeles, Guardado says he remembers "vignettes, not the entire narrative." He recalls walking under the moonlight, cramming into a fake compartment in a semitrailer and crossing a river by raft in the dark.

Once they crossed the border, they no longer had to walk in the moonlight - but their life in the shadows was just beginning.

Guardado could say two things in English when he arrived in this country: sorry and thank you.

A fast learner and a diligent student, he was fluent in English within 1 1/2 years, said his mother, Maria Guardado. Just as he had done in El Salvador, he earned straight As in school.

His potential caught the eye of Louis Moret, a prominent figure in the Democratic Party in Los Angeles who employed Maria Guardado to clean his house and help take care of his children.

Moret helped get Guardado into Cathedral High, a private all-boys Catholic school. Guardado never told anyone there that he had no Social Security number, and he made excuses when invited to represent the school at a youth gathering in England. He formed a profound but angry relationship with God, who he felt had set him up for so much success that would only be followed by failure.

"That cut at a deep level," he said.

Facing long odds to attend college because he didn't qualify for federal aid or in-state tuition, he set out a plan: Apply to wealthy, private liberal-arts colleges that wouldn't care about his immigration status and would have scholarships to fund his education.

It worked.

He was offered a full ride to Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania and St. Mary's College of California. The deciding factor: St. Mary's had a chapel open 24 hours a day.

"There's something beautiful to me about going into a church at 2 in the morning, and just being for a few minutes," he said.

Compassion runs deep

Compassion is deeply rooted in Guardado.

As a boy in El Salvador, he asked his mother for money, then walked over and gave it to a man without a leg.

In Los Angeles, he put pieces of tortilla in his backpack and fed them to stray dogs in the neighborhood.

"I don't think that desire to keep helping will ever die," his mother said in Spanish.

Guardado says he's drawn to social-justice work and ministry because he knows what it's like to need help from strangers - and get it.

"When you are a recipient of generosity on some level it creates a kinship moment with individuals who also might need help in your future," Guardado said. "That's not the kind of thing you forget."

He earned a bachelor's degree in religious studies from St. Mary's and a master's in theology from Notre Dame. In between, he spent a year in New York City, working with inner-city kids through the Lasallian Volunteer Program.

In 2008, he took a job in campus ministry at St. Mary's. But he became disillusioned when the college laid off janitors and other staff workers during the recession.

He knows a higher-paying field would help his mother, who is 60 years old and still cleans houses. But, he says of a corporate job, internally "it's not going to feed me."

Seeking inner peace

While he was still at St. Mary's, Guardado led student trips to the border. That's how he met the Rev. Remmel, who saw in Guardado intelligence, a keen grasp of theology - and something more.

"There's a tangible quality I can't put a name on," Remmel said. "Anyone I know that's met him seems to be able to immediately relate to him."

He has all the traits of an outstanding leader, said the Rev. John Fife, retired pastor at Southside Presbyterian Church and co-founder of the Sanctuary Movement of the 1980s. "Leo's going to make a substantial difference in the world before he's done."

Just months from his 30th birthday, Guardado now faces a decision about going to the monastery. Part of his desire is an unexplainable draw to the place, the people and the mystery of God, he says. The other attraction is to the stillness and rhythm of the life.

"I grew up climbing trees and swimming in rivers. I grew up playing on my own in the wilderness," he said. "I was then transplanted, to use the imagery, to a cement jungle in Los Angeles."

At the monastery, he says, "You till the land, you work the land. I think as I grow older, psychologically, it takes me back to my roots in El Salvador."

Contact reporter Brady McCombs at 573-4213 or