By David Monti
(c) 2022 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved – used with permission

Former Northern Arizona University star Luis Grijalva is coming off of an outstanding 2021 track season, and he has a lot to celebrate.  The 23-year-old took second in the NCAA Championships 5000m, lowered his personal best at that distance to 13:10.09, and finished 12th in the Tokyo Olympic final in the same discipline. 

He also signed a pro contract with Hoka One One and settled into a comfortable life living and training in the running mecca of Flagstaff, Ariz., where he went to college.

“I’m in a good place right now,” Grijalva told Race Results Weekly in a telephone interview last Thursday.

But as one of the approximately 700,000 “Dreamers” residing in the United States –children of immigrant parents who came to the United States at a young age– life for Grijalva can be complicated, especially when it comes to traveling to international competitions. 

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Under the federal government’s DACA program (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) Grijalva can remain in the United States without fear of deportation to his native Guatemala, and move about freely within the 50 states and other USA territories. 

But if he needs to travel overseas to compete, he faces a daunting and expensive approvals process which can take months.  It’s frustrating for a young man who has spent nearly his entire live in the United States and doesn’t have any of the rights of citizenship or even those granted to permanent residents, so-called “green card” holders.

“To be honest I feel as American as anyone who has lived in America,” said Grijalva, who went to Armijo High School in Fairfield, Calif.  “Only because I was born two countries below America, like, I’ve been here since I was a year-old. 

“I’m currently 23 years old now, so 22 years living in the United States I feel as American as anybody else who wasn’t born here.”

For Grijalva –whose name is pronounced “Gre-HAHL-vah”– getting to the Tokyo Olympics required an extraordinary effort.  He had to hire an immigration lawyer, Jessica Smith Bobadilla, and request special permission to travel outside of the USA from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). 

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This type of permission can take up to six months to approve, and Grijalva only had a few weeks after setting his Olympic Games qualifying mark last June.  His manager, Ray Flynn of Flynn Sports Management, put his firm’s full effort into helping Grijalva and got the attention of two legislators, Rep.

Tom O’Halleran and Sen. Mark Kelly of Arizona, whose staffs helped push his application forward.  Grijalva received his permission to travel just days before flying to Tokyo.

“We hired Jessica July 1st, and I believe I got the permit the 25th,” Grijalva recounted.  “It was on a Monday.  Three days later I had to fly to Tokyo.  Usually for people in my situation, you have to get the permit six months in advance; we did it in 25 days.”

Unfortunately, the permission to travel to Tokyo was only applicable for that trip and Grijalva has to apply again each time he wants to leave the United States. 

The required lead time of up to six months is impractical because organizers of athletics meetings don’t usually work that far ahead on inviting athletes.  Indeed, athletes are often added to meets just days in advance.  For Grijalva that would be impossible.

Working with the Wanda Diamond League meeting organizers in Oslo (June 16) and Stockholm (June 30), Flynn secured invitations for Grijalva for both meetings back in March, then set about to get his travel permission set up.  The process is ongoing.

“Luis needs something called “advance parole” filed with the Immigration & Naturalization Service,” Flynn explained in an e-mail. 

“For this, we retained an immigration lawyer who has again made the application.  We requested and received early confirmation from the Bislett Games (Oslo) and DN Galen (Stockholm) Diamond League meets that Luis was invited as one of the world’s top athletes.”

As he grinds out his miles in Flagstaff, Grijalva has no choice but to wait on the outcome of his most recent request to travel.

“That’s the issue with DACA,” Grijalva lamented.  “Anytime I want to leave the country and go back and forth I have to reapply for the same permit. 

“A lot of people thought when I went to the Olympics and I got the permit, a lot of people thought it was a one-time thing and I’d be good for the rest of my life.  I have to do that process every single time if I ever want to leave the country. 

“It kind of sucks because it’s my job to compete with the best people in the world.  It’s a struggle I have to face in the future now.”

Grijalva said that his sponsor, Hoka One One, has been very supportive.  His contract includes special funding for immigration work which isn’t cheap.

“Lawyers have to get paid,” said Grijalva.  “I hired Jessica because she’s one of the best in the business.  She knows exactly what to do and that’s what got me into the Olympics in the first place. 

“As a budget, I have to spend over three grand to hire her in the first place and all the paperwork.  Some paperwork doesn’t go through and you have to reapply, and there’s a fee. 

“You have to pay for the DACA fee which is about $700.  Total, it’s almost like four grand or so.”

Like all DACA recipients, Grijalva has no direct path available to him to achieve U.S. citizenship, except through marriage to an American citizen.  DACA is only a temporary measure.  Like other dreamers, Grijalva has learned to live with his uncertain status and is grateful for the support system he has.

“The way I think about it I’m pretty fortunate enough to have the resources to help me out with the lawyer fees,” Grijalva said. 

“But imagine someone else who is a dreamer as well who doesn’t have the same resources and has to come out of pocket, had to pay their way to go to something.  It might not be the Olympics, but it might be something greater with even more significant meaning to them. 

“This is a difficult situation and I can’t imagine how other dreamers feel when they have to leave the country.”

For Grijalva’s next race he’ll only need a domestic ticket.  He’s running the 5000m at the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene on May 28, the Wanda Diamond League’s only stop in the United States.  Grijalva is excited to represent Hoka in what is America’s most important invitational athletics meeting.

“I thought these companies were going to be afraid that I was on DACA,” Grijalva said. “Hoka was super-supportive.  They were just really thoughtful in my situation.”  He continued: “They’re just super-happy.  They’re the type of people you want to work with.”

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