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DACA recipient gets approval to compete in the Olympics: ‘I’m going to Tokyo’

On Monday, immigration authorities approved Luis Grijalva’s petition to fly to Tokyo. (Jessica Smith Bobadilla)
3 min

Runner Luis Grijalva has spent most of his sports career trying to beat his own time.

But even after he surpassed his 5,000-meter record at the NCAA’s track and field championships last month when he crossed the finish line in 13 minutes 13.14 seconds — a time that earned him a spot representing his native Guatemala in the Tokyo Olympics — Grijalva was still running against the clock.

Grijalva, a recipient of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a program that grants work and study authorization to undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children, had mere weeks for immigration authorities to approve a petition that would allow him to fly to Japan and reenter the U.S. without further trouble.

DACA recipients are, for the most part, not allowed to reenter the United States unless they leave the country for humanitarian, educational or employment purposes.

“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, Grijalva announced in a follow-up post on Instagram that immigration authorities had approved his petition to fly to Tokyo after he filed two requests to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, paid more than $1,000 in processing fees and flew to the agency’s Phoenix office alongside his attorney.

“It’s official I’m going to Tokyo,” Grijalva said.

This will be the first time Grijalva, who arrived in the United States from Guatemala when he was 1, leaves the country. But his immigration attorney, Jessica Smith Bobadilla, said it’s common for beneficiaries of the DACA program to risk missing an opportunity because of their immigration status.

“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,” Smith Bobadilla told The Washington Post.

A spokesperson with USCIS did not immediately respond to a message from The Post. News about Grijalva’s dilemma was first reported by the Visalia Times Delta.

Grijalva first settled in New York with his parents and his two brothers before moving to Fairfield, Calif., when he was 3 years old, he told the New York Times. In California, he discovered a love of running and quickly developed a talent for it.

That earned him a full scholarship to Northern Arizona University, where the senior has won three NCAA cross-country championships with the Lumberjacks.

Grijalva retained Smith Bobadilla as his attorney in early July. Smith Bobadilla said she worked round-the-clock to file the athlete’s advance parole expedited petition, the document he needed to return to the country without any issues after Tokyo.

Smith Bobadilla told the athlete she would do everything in her power to get him to Tokyo but advised him there was some chance that USCIS might not issue the paperwork on time — especially since the pandemic has slowed the agency’s processes, she said.

“This was not a cookie-cutter case,” Smith Bobadilla told The Post. “This was something that was really out of the box.”

U.S. judge blocks new applicants to program that protects undocumented ‘dreamers’ who arrived as children

Although Smith Bobadilla received a receipt ticket from the agency in less than a week, indicating the petition had been received, time passed without any further news. So last week, after filing an emergency petition and waiting for a phone call from the agency that never came, Smith Bobadilla decided to escalate the case and booked a flight with Grijalva to Arizona to make one last plea.

“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. “post 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.”

After some back and forth, Smith Bobadilla told The Post, she and Grijalva entered the agency’s Phoenix processing office around 9:30 a.m. on Monday. After meeting with several supervisors, the pair were advised to return after lunch.

The two were on their way to lunch when they received a call from a USCIS agent letting them know the athlete’s petition had been approved. In a matter of minutes, they turned their car around to head back to the office to get the advance parole document.

“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.”

Later that day, Grijalva and Smith Bobadilla posed for a picture with his approved documentation in front of the agency’s logo.

Grijalva is expected to fly to Tokyo on Friday to get there on time for Tuesday’s competition, his attorney said. If he performs among the top in his category, he will compete in the Aug. 6 finals.

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