Since the moment 18-year-old Meydi Guzman-Rivas arrived in the U.S., few things about her time here have been easy.
The former Crystal Lake Central High School student and Honduran immigrant spent four months in federal immigration detention before she was released on bond, about a month before statewide COVID-19 shutdowns began. But with support from her teachers, including the guidance counselor whose family took in Guzman-Rivas, the teenager caught up in time to graduate with her classmates in July.
Monday marked her first day as a full-time student at McHenry County College, where she plans to finish her general education requirements before applying for the school’s nursing program.
“I have been through so many struggles or challenges that I will help other people when no one else can,” Guzman-Rivas said.
On July 24, Guzman-Rivas walked across her high school’s stage in a black cap, gown and matching face mask, and received her high school diploma. The achievement felt far away about six months earlier, when Guzman-Rivas passed the days in a pair of jail scrubs as she awaited bond on a 2018 immigration case. The contrast has made her current life feel like a “blessing” and added perspective to rules about face masks and social distancing.
“It does not even compare to being in jail,” Guzman-Rivas said. “I think we should think about that. [Detainees] are not in a comfortable house with their family and friends.”
The teenager and her father, Fabio Guzman-Reyes, were stopped by immigration enforcement officers in 2018 when they fled to the U.S. from their native Honduras. Although they originally were released while their immigration cases were ongoing, the pair was arrested again the following October when they missed a court date, one of Guzman-Rivas’ attorneys, Nathan Reyes, has said.
The father and daughter were separated while Guzman-Rivas awaited bond in the McHenry County Jail’s immigration detention area and later at the Pulaski County immigration detention center.
Community members rallied to raise money on GoFundMe.com to cover Guzman-Rivas' bail, which Crystal Lake High School District 155 counselor Sara Huser posted on Feb. 13. Guzman-Rivas now is seeking asylum to stay in the U.S., out of fear of gang violence if she were to return. Her attorneys could not be reached Monday for comment.
Guzman-Rivas continues to live in Crystal Lake with what she calls “my Huser family” while her case is ongoing. Her father was released shortly after Guzman-Rivas and lives nearby. The pair visit often.
When Guzman-Rivas graduated, her dad was there to watch as she received her diploma and celebrated with her later at the socially distanced, outdoor graduation party at the Husers’ home.
“It was amazing to have that opportunity to be with my family and to receive my diploma from the principal,” Guzman-Rivas said. “It was a special moment.”
Thinking back on the past year, Guzman-Rivas said she can’t help but feel grateful for the teachers, neighbors and classmates who supported her both during her detention and upon her return. Navigating a full schedule of online classes will be a new challenge for Guzman-Rivas, but one she’s not tackling alone.
Undocumented students and students who have received Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals aren’t eligible for federal student financial aid, according to the U.S. Department of Education. The Huser family and Guzman-Rivas are exploring other possible funding options, and believe they can make it work, Huser said. Guzman-Rivas’ GoFundMe account is active and had raised more than $11,000 of its $13,000 goal as of Monday.
“I want people to know that that support matters,” Huser said, speaking also of the kind letters and words of encouragement that Guzman-Rivas has received. “That support made all the difference to where we are today.”
Despite immigration worries, COVID-19 concerns and the typical stresses of high school, the Husers have offered Guzman-Rivas glimpses of a normalcy. Listening to music in her bedroom, letting Huser’s daughter do her hair or makeup, and cooking a homemade dinner with her surrogate family all have been sources of joy for the young woman.
“I’m really happy and I cannot stop thanking God,” she said.
Being in quarantine with Sara and John Huser and their children also has brought with it a world of firsts. The 18-year-old went on her first vacation, where she visited South Dakota’s Badlands, hunkered down at a cabin in the Smokey Mountain, went tubing on the river and rode on the back of a horse. She’s also taking care of her first puppy – an 11-week old Golden-Doodle named Coco, whom the Husers adopted earlier this summer.
While certain parts of Guzman-Rivas’ future are uncertain, she hopes to achieve a life where she can help others.
“I want to help people that don’t have enough money to pay for medical attention. I have had the opportunity many times to see people who really need attention, like medical attention, and if I can help one person, I will,” Guzman-Rivas said. “I will do it.”