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As she looked around the room during her graduation ceremony last Friday, a Texas high school graduate knew one person was missing from the room: her father.
Sarai Ruiz, 18, watched as families, including her own mother, proudly stood before her graduating class at Hector J. Garcia Early College High School in Laredo.
Ruiz’s father, Esteban Ruiz, had been deported from the United States when she was just four years old. Though she now lives with both of her parents in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, Ruiz continued to attend school in the United States, which meant crossing the border bridge every day to get her education.
On her graduation day, her father wasn't able to attend since he cannot re-enter the U.S.
"As I looked over at my mom that day as my principal was speaking, I couldn't help but to see other parents there for their kids, and it wasn't just a mom," Ruiz told NBC News. "It was mom and dad, or mom and dad and grandma and grandpa. And it really did hit home for me. I knew that my dad couldn't be there."
Nevertheless, that didn’t stop the father and daughter from celebrating her accomplishment.
In a now viral moment, Ruiz met up with her father on the Puente de Las Americas (Gateway to the Americas Bridge), a border bridge between the United States and Mexico. The two tearfully embraced after Ruiz crossed the bridge fully decked out in her graduation attire.
"I gave him a hug and I just started to cry a lot," she said. "It's like I fulfilled the dreams of both my mom and dad to find better opportunities that they didn't have."
Ruiz shared a video of the moment on Facebook, which has been viewed more than 2.8 million times since May 25, writing, “I knew my father would never see me walk to get my diploma but today I’d thought I’d surprise him by crossing the bridge so he could see me with my cap and gown.”
Ruiz, who moved around when she was younger to be closer to her dad, said her father once told her, “Nobody will ever separate us. Only god will.”
“Since I was four...All this time has passed and it's true, nothing could ever separate us," she said. "A border's not going to separate us, not a bridge, not being able to cross...[It's] not going to change that fact that we're still family."
Ruiz was born in Wisconsin and spent the first seven years of her life there, first with her mother and father, and later with just her mother after her father was deported. She moved to Laredo, Texas with her mother when she was seven, and later to Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, so their whole family could be together.
"I would really like for more and more people to know that I'm just one of many stories," she said.
Her high school principal, Jose E. Iznaola, applauded her determination in a statement to NBC News.
"[Sarai] represents the true grit and spirit of the American dream; people fighting for an opportunity to improve their lives, their family, and their community,” he said. “When, as educators, we see stories like this, we need to remember the all of our students deserve that we work hard for them.”
Ruiz plans to continue her studies at the University of Texas at Austin this coming fall.