U.S. immigration policy collided with an Olympic dream this week.
It all began when Luis Grijalva placed second in the 5,000-meter race at the NCAA track and field championship in June. The track star ran his personal best of 13:13:14 for Northern Arizona University – narrowly beating the automatic qualifying Olympic Games standard of 13:13:50 – and beat the national record in his native country Guatemala, winning him a spot at the Tokyo Olympics.
But Grijalva's status as a beneficiary of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, put his Olympic hopes in jeopardy. The program doesn’t allow him to leave the U.S. and return, so Grijalva and his immigration attorney Jessica Smith Bobadilla got to work and filed for special permission to travel.
“That was a relatively short time frame for even expedited requests for DACA parole,” Smith Bobadilla says. “So we went to great lengths.”
Filing for the travel document, known as advance parole, typically takes about 90 days to process. But Grijalva did not qualify for the Olympics until 53 days before the first preliminary round of 5,000 meter races in Tokyo. The race to beat the clock and secure permission by the end of this week was on.
“Luis, his agent, coaches and I were all kind of on the same page in pushing forward an effort to get Congress involved,'' Smith Bobadilla says. “Eventually, we got different media attention, and I think that all made the difference.”
But the nationwide media attention isn’t an everyday occurrence for many DACA recipients and so-called DREAMers like Grijalva.
“The problem is that there might be many young people like Luis that have a need to travel and have a tight time frame,” Smith Bobadilla says. “Given the situation, it was kind of an exceptional case.”
Grijalva and Smith Bobadilla found out about the news while sitting in the car together outside the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services office in Phoenix, Arizona, on Monday. Grijalva was speechless, he says.
“I just couldn’t believe it just because we’ve been working so hard at it,” Grijalva says. “It seemed like a small dream a couple of months ago, but it actually became a reality.”
Grijalva will run at the men’s 5,000-meter race at the Olympic Games on Aug. 3. Although the 22 year old has been living in the U.S. for 21 years, representing his native roots and culture means all the world to him.
“It feels awesome … to be able to represent my mom, dad, family and generations of [my] family in Guatemala,” Grijalva says. “So [it’s] pretty special, representing 15 million people of Guatemala. It's an honor and a privilege to run for Guatemala and just run for my people.”
Smith Bobadilla says Grijalva’s outstanding case reveals the grave changes that the Biden administration needs to make to DACA. She says she finds it prudent to allow DREAMers like Grijalva to apply for a “blanket travel permit” when they reapply to renew their DACA status every two years.
“I just don't see why we really have to go through something like this to get someone to the Olympics, even though I understand it is the current procedure,” she says.
Smith Bobadilla also says she hopes U.S. citizens can find it within themselves to urge Congress to work together on reforming immigration policy. She hopes Grijalva’s story sheds light on this situation affecting nearly 700,000 DACA recipients nationwide.
“I think we've got a lot of people's attention [and] are now aware that this is kind of a crisis that can lead to some really heartbreaking situations for some very talented young people that have grown up here,” Smith Bobadilla says.
Grijalva began running competitively at Fairfield Armijo High School in California where he grew up. He credits his teenage dream come true to the team effort it took to get his advance parole expedited.
“[Smith Bobadilla] was kind of the powerhouse behind it,” Grijalva says. “But also [I thank] my agent Ray Flynn and my sponsorship Hoka One One... I still can't believe that I'm going to the Olympics this year.”
Grijalva says his message to DACA recipients that find themselves in a similar situation to his is: “Just keep fighting, keep believing in yourself, because there's so many possibilities.”
Because for Grijalva, life is only beginning.
“The highest achievement you could possibly run at is at the Olympic Games,” Grijalva says. I’m only 22-years-old, but I can see myself running in the Paris Games, in L.A. games, in the near future.
This segment aired on July 27, 2021.