A Dreamer’s dream: DACA status almost tripped NAU runner’s Olympic hopes

Northern Arizona Luis Grijalva was unsure he would be able to compete in the Tokyo Olympics even though he qualified for them. Because DACA recipients who leave the country typically aren’t allowed to return, the Guatemala native wasn’t sure he could participate. (Photo by Shane Bevel/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

PHOENIX – Luis Grijalva could see the finish line. He just wasn’t sure he could reach it.

That changed Monday when the former Northern Arizona runner, who had qualified for the Olympics in July, learned he had been approved to travel to Tokyo in time for the preliminary 5,000-meter race Aug. 3. Because DACA recipients who leave the country typically aren’t allowed to return, the Guatemala native wasn’t sure he could participate.

“He is extremely deserving and is one of the most special people we’ve ever had the chance to work with,” said Jarred Cornfield, NAU’s assistant track and field and cross country coach.

Grijalva received an assist from Rep. Tom O’Halleran, D-Sedona, who sent a letter to U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services advocating on Grijalva’s behalf.

“Caseworkers on our staff helped elevate the issue to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services,” said Kaitlin Hooker, communications director at the U.S. House of Representatives. “Our case workers in-district called, emailed and voiced the congressman’s support for Luis’ attorney’s and team’s efforts, and our legislative staff sent a letter to USCIS in support of Luis as well.”

DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, was introduced in 2012 to protect from deportation more than 600,000 undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children.

Those enrolled in the DACA program – known as Dreamers – who leave the country can’t return unless they apply for advance parole, which allows them to travel outside the country for humanitarian, educational or employment purposes. The process to apply and get approved takes about six months.

“Young DREAMers are our neighbors, students, doctors, and teachers, and they deserve stability and access to tools needed to pursue their dreams,” O’Halleran said in a statement.

The Grijalva family moved to California from Guatemala when Luis was 1. At Armijo High School in Fairfield, he excelled at track. As a freshman in 2014, he was already competing in the California Indoor State Championship, placing fourth in the 4×800 relay. By the end of his senior year, he had won a state title in both cross country and track and field, attracting the attention of numerous college coaches.

Grijalva is the first in his family to attend college and earn a college degree. During his time at NAU, he helped the Lumberjacks to three cross country titles and finished ninth in the NCAA championships this year.

“I felt like Luis came to campus as a freshman just yesterday,” Cornfield said, “and we remember vividly the process of him getting here and who he was and how he’s grown since then and it’s just been so incredible to see.”

His success at NAU led to a professional contract with Hokaoneone, a popular running shoe brand.

Grijalva’s agent, Ray Flynn, said Hokaoneone has supported Grijalva during this time and is excited for their brand to be represented at the Olympic games.

A former Olympian himself, Flynn competed for Ireland in the 1980 and 1984 games in the 5,000 meters and understands the importance of the opportunity to compete on a world stage.

“The Olympic Games is the pinnacle for any athlete in the world to compete at the highest level against the best athletes in the world,” Flynn said. “I think competing at the Olympic Games only really strengthens the relationship and the commercial possibilities for him, beyond just competing in the games. It brings him to the very top in the world of showcasing himself.”

Grijalva is set to fly to Tokyo on Friday, but has some work to do before he can go, including undergoing multiple COVID-19 tests and continuing his training.

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The last few weeks have been a whirlwind.

“He was extremely grateful,” Cornfield said, “but also, you know, he’s had to spend a lot of energy on this, and so he’s really tired, too, and so trying to reboot a little bit. But he is just full of gratitude. The support has been overwhelming but incredible.”

Heading into the Olympics, Cornfield said, Grijalva will continue to take it day by day as he did at NAU, and he has high expectations, despite his lack of experience in international racing.

“He’s not scared of any of those guys and he really wants to show what he can do against the best in the world,” Cornfield said. “I think he’s really hungry and he’s really ready to attack the Olympics, not just be happy to be there.”

Although Grijalva has lived in the U.S. almost his entire life, the path to citizenship for DACA recipients can be quite challenging. The advanced parole he received Monday could offer hope.

“I really hope that this story can help not only him but other immigrants with status like his to have a better path to citizenship,” Cornfield said. “Hopefully this is historic and open the door for some change. That’s something I think would be so cool to see happen because of him because … he is such a special person.”

Kaylee Connors KAY-lee con-nors (she/her/hers)
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Kaylee Connors expects to graduate in December 2021 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism and a certificate in marketing. Connors is an intern for Sun Devil Athletics Media Relations.

Joey Serrano joh-ee sai-rahn-noh
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Joey Serrano expects to graduate in August 2021 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Serrano has interned at East Village Times.