I'm an Olympic athlete and a DACA recipient. Because of my status, I never thought I would be able to leave the US to compete at the Tokyo Olympics.
- Luis Grijalva is a long distance runner who represented Guatemala at the Tokyo Olympics.
- As a DACA recipient, Grijalva was unsure whether he would be able to re-enter the US if he left the country to compete.
Luis Grijalva is a beneficiary of DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a policy introduced by the Obama administration in 2012 that grants relief from deportation to over 600,000 undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children.
With some exceptions, DACA recipients are not permitted to return to the US if they travel abroad, facing a decade-long ban from re-entry. Grijalva meets one of those exceptions.
The native Guatemalan runner scored a ticket to the Olympic Games in Tokyo last year. He petitioned the US Citizenship and Immigration Services agency to be allowed to temporarily leave the country and compete at the Olympics, putting DACA and Guatemala in the spotlight.
This is an as-told-to essay based on a conversation with Grijalva. It has been edited for length and clarity.
Discovering my love for running
My family and I came to the United States from Guatemala in 2000 when I was only a year old. I've been living here for 22 years now. We moved to Fairfield, California, originally. In Fairfield, I discovered a love for running.
It all started in physical education. In elementary school and middle school, our teacher would have us run around the grassy field. I noticed I was always one of the first to make it to the finish line. I just fell in love with the feeling.
Although I wasn't the greatest in math or English, running was my thing. It made me feel confident. I felt special running. It's a sport where you can go all out and all you really need is a pair of shoes and shorts — you don't need any fancy equipment.
Then I went into high school already knowing I wanted to do cross country and track and field. I kept getting better every year. That got me a scholarship to Northern Arizona University.
By the time I got to my senior year in college, I started running really fast times that eventually qualified me to go to the Olympic Games in Tokyo.
Fulfilling my Olympic-sized childhood dream
I ran a time of 13 minutes and 13 seconds in the 5,000 meters that qualified me to go and run at the Olympics. It was the last race of my collegiate running career. There were 42 athletes in total that made it to the Olympic Games for the 5,000 meters, but they only take 15 for the final. I was the last-minute qualifier — the last person to get that final spot.
But I still didn't know if I was going to be able to go to Tokyo.
If you want to apply to leave the US when you're under DACA, it typically takes five to six months to do so in the correct way and not rush the process. It also takes a lot of effort and money.
We had to rush a lot of things and had to contact a lot of people to help us. I had to hire a lawyer, and my lawyer had to deal with all of these things behind the scenes. She got in contact with the media and with Senator Mark Kelly's office just to make a push so we could get the permit in time for me to be able to go to the Olympic Games.
I got a lot of support from a lot of people I knew, from writers interested in my story, but also from people I had never heard of or had never met before in my life, as well as people who weren't even runners in the first place.
The experience not only brought a lot of awareness to my situation, but also to what DACA is.
Overall, it was a really long process. I didn't find out that I was going to the Olympic Games until two days before my flight took off to Tokyo. I barely made the final.
Even though DACA protects us Dreamers and allows me to be in the US legally, there are still flaws in the system, and some of those flaws need to be fixed.
Representing Guatemala in the Tokyo Olympics
What makes it even more special is that I got to represent my birth country, Guatemala, at the Olympics. The last person to make a track event from Guatemala was in the year 2000. That's over 22 years ago. Running for Guatemala was special for me. I ran for my family and ran for the country where my roots started. I have generations of family that have lived in Guatemala way before I can even imagine.
I placed 12th in the Olympic Games and ran the time of 13 minutes and 10 seconds. That was a new national record for Guatemala. It was also my first global, big championship race.
At the same time, I'm technically not a citizen of the US, so even if I wanted to represent the US, I couldn't even be on Team USA because of my citizenship status.
But also, in some ways, I feel as American as anybody else who lives in the US. I've been living here for 22 years, just because I was born a couple of countries down south doesn't mean I don't feel as American.
Navigating DACA uncertainty
Getting to Tokyo was an unreal experience. Part of my dream one day is to travel around the world. And luckily, running professionally, you get to do that. But there's a lot of uncertainty even in my situation when it comes to DACA.
This year I was able to travel to Stockholm and Oslo in June, and then I got to go to Brussels at the start of September to run. But everything played out very last-minute, and we didn't know if I was going to be able to get the permits for any of my trips.
I learned how to manage the uncertainty by just treating it as the norm and lowering my expectations. If I can't go, then it's fine. But if I do go, it's amazing. It's incredible.
Letting my running speak for me
Sometimes I forget that I'm not just representing myself, but I'm representing a country as a whole, as well as the Latin American community, and on top of that, 600,000 Dreamers. Even if I'm not the biggest speaker, I speak through my running, and then my running speaks for itself. Sometimes that's all I have to do because more attention surrounding my story means more awareness for DACA as a whole.
For me, it all started out with a little dream. And sometimes that little dream can seem so far away and so unrealistic, but if you keep working hard and you keep trying and not letting yourself get beat down because of the situation you're in, you can do so many amazing things. I worked for it and kept believing in myself, and my dreams became a reality.
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