When Luis Grijalva crossed the finish line at the NCAA tracks last month, he knew he could reach his Olympic dream.
But first, immigration officials had to agree to let the 22-year-old runner travel outside the United States and return to the country he calls home.
Grijalva is a deferred act of childhood income (DACA) recipient who travels to Japan on Friday to represent Guatemala in the 5,000-meter race at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. He and his lawyer spent several weeks submitting petitions to the US Citizenship and Immigration Services on a special permit, known as a precondition, that allows DACA recipients to re-enter the United States after traveling abroad.
They were unsure whether immigration officials would be able to give Grijalva permission on time, but on Monday he was ready to travel after weeks of uncertainty.
“It’s a privilege and an honor to represent Guatemala, because this is where I was born (where I) have generations of family, and this is where my roots started,” he told CNN.
Grijalva was only a year old when his family moved to New York from Guatemala. The family of five later moved to Fairfield, California, where Grijalva often ran for fun with other children in Turkey’s trotting race on Thanksgiving.
At these holiday races and PE classes, Grijalva slowly began to notice that he was faster than other children his age. But it was only when he became a teenager while at Armijo High School in Fairfield that he realized how much he loved running, and with the help of his coaches, he focused on becoming a cross-country skier, he said.
Since graduating from high school, a scholarship to Northern Arizona University has helped Grijalva continue to run competitively while pursuing a career in communications. In the last three years, he has improved his performance and improved his personal best times.
Last month, he finished second in the men’s 5,000-meter race at the NCAA Division I men’s and women’s outdoor athletics championships in Eugene, Oregon. He had a time of 13 minutes and 13.14 seconds – an effort that became his ticket to the Olympics.
While he was unable to represent the United States at the Olympics for several reasons, including his immigration status, Guatemala elected him to the country’s delegation. He was honored for the opportunity, but did not know if there would be enough time to apply for and receive an immigration permit to travel.
At the time, Grijalva says, he had about 27 days to get the travel permit. The process of obtaining a permit takes at least 90 days, said Jessica Smith Bobadilla, Grijalva’s lawyer.
Smith Bobadilla said they were able to put together a very detailed application and had been in contact with lawmakers in Arizona about Grijalva’s situation. On Monday, they made one last effort to expedite his application and went to USCIS offices in Phoenix, they said.
Grijalva says it was “incredible” when immigration officials confirmed he had been allowed to travel after waiting several hours in the office.
He will drive to Guatemala on August 3 for the initial 5,000-meter race. After the Olympics, he continues his career professionally after signing a contract with the shoe company Hoka One One.
“It is honestly a dream to pursue a passion that does not feel like a job,” Grijalva said. “It’s pretty amazing.”
Read Grijalva’s full story here.