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

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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.

“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,” Jiménez Moreta said in a press statement. She added that the recognition of the grant “symbolizes the pathways we take to survive and thrive. I hope that it inspires Americans of all backgrounds to stand up to racism and urge our lawmakers to pass a clean Dream Act immediately.”

Jiménez Moreta was also 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.

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.

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.

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