Story at a glance:

  • An undocumented immigrant is representing the United States at the Tokyo Olympics Games .
  • Luis Grijalva is a senior from Northern Arizona University who has won three NCAA cross-country championships.
  • If he does well in his category of the men's 5,000-meter race, he will advance to the finals on Aug. 6.

Luis Grijalva, a Guatemalan-born immigrant who came to Americas a 1-year-old, hasn’t been granted U.S. citizenship — but with the approval of the federal government, the 22-year-old runner is representing the country at the Tokyo Olympics.


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The journey there wasn’t easy. As a recipient of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), Grijalva was not allowed to leave the country for reasons other than humanitarian, educational or employment purposes.

But as a full-scholarship student in his senior year at Northern Arizona University, Grijalva has won three NCAA cross-country championships. 

“Even though my roots started in Guatemala in some ways I feel as American as anybody else who was born here,” Grijalva wrote Sunday on Instagram. “DACA takes away my freedom of ever leaving the country and be able to come back in.”

On Monday, in a follow up post on Instagram, Grijalva revealed that immigration authorities had approved his travel to Tokyo – after he filed two requests to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), paid more than $1,000 in processing fees and went to the agency’s Phoenix location with his immigration attorney, The Washington Post reported.

“It’s official I’m going to Tokyo,” Grijalva, who is leaving the country for the first time, said.

“It’s not the first time that I’ve encountered someone with DACA, or a ‘dreamer,’ achieving something that’s major without potentially not being able to participate,” attorney Jessica Smith Bobadilla, who Grijalva retained in early July, told the Washington Post.

Smith Bobadilla told Grijalva that she would do all she could to make the petition go in his favor, but she advised him that the USCIS might not issue the paperwork on time, especially amidst the coronavirus pandemic, which has slowed the agency’s processes.

“This was not a cookie-cutter case,” Smith Bobadilla, who practices law in Fresno, Calif., told the Washington Post. “This was something that was really out of the box.”

After filing an emergency petition and waiting for a phone call from the agency that never came, Smith Bobadilla tried to accelerate the case and flew to Arizona to meet with Grijalva.

“It would be [an] honor and a privilege to represent my home country but also be able to be a voice and represent over 600,000 Dreamers like me,” Grijalva wrote on Instagram on Sunday. “Tomorrow morning I will be marching down [to] the USCIS office in Phoenix to make one last effort in gaining an advance parole that allows me to leave the country and be able to return safely.”

Smith Bobadilla and Grijalva went to the USCIS Phoenix processing office around 9:30 a.m. on Monday and met with several supervisors before being told they should return after lunch.

Upon the pair’s lunch break, they received a call from a USCIS agent informing him that his petition was granted.

“We were both kind of struck by the moment, that he was actually going to the Olympics,” Smith Bobadilla said. “It felt like a huge victory.”

Grijalva will be in Tokyo on Friday, just in time for Tuesday’s competition, his attorney said. If he does well in his category in men's 5,000-meter, he will advance to the finals on Aug. 6.


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Published on Jul 28, 2021