SAN MARCOS, Calif.—Ayded Reyes lives on hope.
There were times that was all she had.
In 2011 the Southwestern College cross country champion, track star, straight A student and perfect citizen was alone in a cold, dirty INS detention center treated as a criminal and hours away from being deported.
She was helped.
She was saved.
“I sometimes think about it,” she said. “I still cannot believe what happened, because I never thought it would.”
Now a senior scholarship athlete at Cal State San Marcos and well on her way to American citizenship, Reyes said the threat of deportation has helped her become a stronger person.
Reyes’s blessing in disguise began in 2011, about a week before the Pacific Coast Athletic Conference championships.
Captain of SWC’s women’s cross country team and owner of multiple college track records, Reyes was the passenger in a car stopped for a minor traffic violation by two Harbor Police officers in Chicano Park. Reyes, who was born in Mexico and carried across the U.S./Mexico border at the age of two by family, was unable to provide proof of citizenship. Border Patrol agents were summoned and she was detained. She was transferred into the custody of the Immigration and Naturalization Service and shuttled around between Chula Vista, Imperial Beach and San Ysidro detention cells for four miserable and sleepless days. She said it felt like months.
Reyes was finally released after former Congressman Bob Filner intervened and compelled the INS to free her.
After her release, she led her team to first place in the PCAC championships. Her story made national news. She was featured on CNN, ESPN and her poster-sized photo was held overhead by Illinois Senator Dick Durbin on the floor of the U.S. Senate. She became the face of the DREAM Act. She won the SWC Student of Distinction Award, several academic scholarships and many university athletic scholarship offers. Hollywood screenwriters would have had a hard time coming up with the story.
A subsequent court case against Reyes for being in the U.S. illegally led to dismissal of all charges.
Lawyer Jacob Sapochnick represented her pro bono and was able to secure a Deferred Action status, which means all legal actions to deport her have now been postponed.
“I have to carry a paper with me, just in case immigration stops me,” she said. “It is proof that I am in the program, or in the process, to get either residency or citizenship.”
With deferred action, Reyes can legally work in the U.S. and get a driver’s license. She now has a social security number.
Sapochnick said he was inspired by Reyes’s resolve. He said she is a person that deserves to live in the U.S. and stories like hers illustrate why immigration reform is needed.
“Many of the young kids that are getting their paperwork in stages are going to be examples,” he said. “The more we have these examples, I think the quicker we are going towards reform. If it was not for Ayded and people like her, this whole discussion would not be happening.”
At San Marcos Reyes continues to excel. Living off-campus and commuting to school on her bicycle, she attends full-time while also running for the cross country and track teams.
“I really like the atmosphere here, there’s no pressure,” she said. “Coach makes it easy for us to love running and keep ourselves motivated more than anything.”
Reyes’s coach, former U.S. Olympian Steve Scott, set the American record for fastest mile at 3 minutes and 47.69 seconds in 1982. His record stood for more than 25 years. He says Reyes is a joy to work with.
“She definitely is an inspiration to others, especially with everything she has been through,” Scott said. “One thing about Ayded, she never complains about her situation. She is a scholarship athlete, but it does not cover everything. She did not come to me and say, ‘Hey coach, I need more scholarship money.’ She went out and got a job.”
Reyes does not have a job anymore. She had to quit last summer after running into a slight problem.
“I was biking home and I got hit by a car,” she said. “I was not able to train for a while.”
The accident left Reyes with a broken hamate bone.
Undeterred, Reyes prevailed.
She credits hard work, family and a faith in God for her perseverance and successes in life.
“I always pray before a race and in the morning,” she said. “It makes me feel like I’m not alone, like he’s here for me, going to give me the energy, the power, the positivity, the strength and the willingness to go out there and give it my all.”
Humbled by all the support she has received, Reyes’s ultimate goal is to become an obstetrician and help low-income parents like her own in the communities of San Diego.
“I want to have a job that is going to be able to help others. I do not want a job where I am just going to be making money and not really make a difference,” she said. “I have definitely gotten a lot of help from a lot of different people. All kinds of people, different kinds of help.”
Although she is excited for the next chapter to begin, Reyes is sad to see the current one end. 2014 will be her last year competing at the college level. After this season, she plans to join a private team or continue running unattached. She is unsure of which medical school she wants to attend and is contemplating taking a year off after graduation.
After all that has happened, she is grateful to be where she is today.
“It was a horrible experience and it sucks to say, but I kind of am glad that kind of thing happened to me because now I’m able to help, or at least guide, people that are in my same situation.”
She wants students to know that their dreams are possible too, but admits they will not come without significant effort.
While in high school, Reyes did not see a future so bright.
“I had to pretty much knock through every single door and look for options. I wasn’t able to get FAFSA or scholarships, nothing. I had to pay (for college) with my own pocket money.”
Reyes said she has been contacted by high school students classified as AB540s who feel there is no point continuing school.
Reyes has a message for them.
“Don’t give up! There is a lot of help you can get.”
Ever-optimistic, Reyes is rarely seen without a smile and her friends all say she truly cares about people, especially those who are less fortunate.
“I think the best thing you can really do to any one, good or bad, is give them the best of you. Smile or make them smile because you never know what they have been through. You always have to see the positive side of everything.”