Meet Cristina, a former undocumented immigrant who just received a MacArthur ‘genius’ award

"This award celebrates the resilience and strength of my parents and of all immigrants who’ve defeated the odds to make the United States their home."

Kids sit on the sidewalk during an immigration rally in Deerfield Beach, Fla., Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2014. Seven people from the United We Dream immigration reform group were arrested after obstructing the entrance to the Broward Transitional Center. CREDIT: AP Photo/J Pat Carter
Kids sit on the sidewalk during an immigration rally in Deerfield Beach, Fla., Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2014. Seven people from the United We Dream immigration reform group were arrested after obstructing the entrance to the Broward Transitional Center. CREDIT: AP Photo/J Pat Carter

Cristina Jiménez Moreta, a 33-year-old social justice organizer from New York, became one of 24 extraordinary “geniuses” to receive a 2017 MacArthur Fellowship, a distinction that comes with a $625,000 grant. The “no-strings-attached” grant, which is annually bequeathed to exceptional and inspirational Americans, may serve as the latest rebuttal against harsh characterizations of immigrants led by President Donald Trump. That’s because two decades ago, Jiménez Moreta came to the country as an undocumented immigrant with her family from Ecuador.

Since 2008, Jiménez Moreta has served as the co-founder and executive director of the advocacy group United We Dream, which seeks to ensure fair access to education, health care, and a variety of other issues as important to undocumented immigrants as they are to other Americans. In many ways, her organization has helped humanize undocumented immigrants, many of whom were brought to the country as children, by putting their stories at the forefront of public conversations about immigration.

“Putting a human face on the plight of long-term resident children and young adults transformed the negative public discourse around immigrants,” Jiménez Moreta’s profile on the MacArthur Foundation webpage read in part.

“Regardless of what Trump or anyone has to say, this award recognizes our courage, our sacrifices of the community, our humanity, and that this is our home,” Jiménez Moreta told ThinkProgress in a phone interview on Wednesday afternoon. “This award and this journey really reflects that community [of undocumented immigrants] and the power and courage that comes with it when you’re dreaming together of what you want to achieve.”

Jiménez Moreta was instrumental in pressuring the Obama White House to act on administrative action when Congress failed to enact permanent immigration legislation in 2011. Her group’s advocacy, in part, led to the creation of an executive action known as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) initiative, which grants temporary lawful presence to individuals brought to the country as children. Since 2012, 793,026 so-called DREAMers have taken advantage of the program to receive temporary work authorization and deportation relief.

She hopes that the award will allow undocumented immigrants not to lose strength and hope in spite of a Trump administration that has mobilized nationwide enforcement crackdowns on the immigrant community.

“We are still here, despite the odds and despite the attacks,” she added. “We are not going to go back into the shadows and that’s the inspiration I want to share with undocumented youths and families out there.”

Although the grant is considered “no strings attached,” meaning she can use it for anything,  Jiménez Moreta said she will likely use part of the grant to support United We Dream’s mission of building a generation of community organizers and social justice leaders.

“We need more leaders in our community,” Jiménez Moreta said. “We have a responsibility to empower young people to find our voices and be their own advocates.”

Given Jiménez Moreta’s involvement in the DACA efforts, the path she took to become a MacArthur “genius” makes a strong case against Trump’s treatment of undocumented immigrants. Last month, DACA recipients were heartbroken when the White House announced it would gradually phase out the program to wait on congressional action. At the time, the White House allowed recipients whose work authorization cards expire before March 5, 2018 one last chance to renew their lawful presence status before last week. The first set of DACA recipients are expected to see their DACA status permanently expire starting around March 5, 2018.

As for next steps, Jiménez Moreta hopes people can take her success as a springboard to fight against some of the hateful myths surrounding immigrants. Her organization is now pressuring Congress to take on a “clean Dream Act,” a bill that grants legal status to DREAMers without being attached to costly border security measures.

Jiménez Moreta now joins 2016 MacArthur “genius” grantee José Quiñonez, who is also formerly undocumented, in showing that they are more than just their immigration status. The MacArthur Foundation also awarded three other grants to people working in the field of immigration. Those individuals include Jason De León, a University of Michigan anthropologist and author, who uses forensic evidence to study migration patterns along the southern U.S.-Mexico border to better understand the human consequences of immigration policy; Sunil Amrith, a Harvard University historian who studies migration and colonization in South and Southeast Asia; and Greg Asbed, a human rights strategist with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and Fair Food Program, which is helping growers address the treatment of migrant farmworkers.

Roughly 21.7 percent of all MacArthur fellows since 1981 were born outside the United States, according to a New York Times calculation of 965 MacArthur grantees before this year’s announcement. To date, 989 individuals have been awarded with the grant.

This story has been updated to include quotes from Jiménez Moreta from a telephone interview with ThinkProgress.