Cristina Jiménez Moreta helped get DACA, now she helps young immigrants find their voice

Cristina Jiménez Moreta helped get DACA, now she helps young immigrants find their voice

Originally Published in USA Today

Nicole Carroll - August 20, 2020

Cristina Jiménez Moreta is one of USA TODAY's Women of the Century. To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, we've assembled a list of 100 women who've made a substantial impact on our country or our lives over the past 100 years. Read about them all at

Cristina Jiménez Moreta was in 11th grade in New York City's Queens borough and, like many of her classmates, was worried about her SAT scores, honors classes and applying to college.

Then a college counselor told her: You can't go.

She was undocumented. Her parents had brought her to New York from Ecuador when she was 13. "My heart just shattered," she said. "I had done all the work that I needed to do to become a strong college candidate."

Jiménez Moreta's mom told her to go back to school and ask again — and if she didn't go, her mom would go herself. "The idea of my mother going to my high school was terrifying, which is why I said, 'No, Mom, it's OK. I'm going to go and seek out help.' "

A different counselor told her she could apply but would have to pay international student tuition, which "could be triple or quadruple the amount" of what other state residents would pay. "So it totally becomes unaffordable, even if you could apply," Jiménez Moreta said.

Fortunately for Jiménez Moreta, in 2002 New York began to offer in-state tuition to certain undocumented immigrants. 

Her dad worked at a car wash in Queens, did construction work and cleaned. Her mom babysat and cleaned homes. Jiménez Moreta sold Avon, babysat and cleaned houses, as well.

She graduated with a bachelor's degree in political science and business from Queens College, CUNY. She also earned a master's degree in public administration from the Marxe School of Public and International Affairs at Baruch College, CUNY.

Based on her experiences growing up undocumented — sometimes unsure, sometimes shattered — she wanted to help other young people find their voice. She co-founded United We Dream, which became the country's largest immigrant-youth-led network with 400,000 members across 100 local groups and 28 states.

The group pressured then-President Barack Obama to protect young immigrants brought to the U.S. as children. In 2012, his administration created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, which allowed these young immigrants to obtain work permits, get driver's licenses — and yes — go to college. The organization helped change public perception of undocumented youth.

In 2017, Jiménez Moreta was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, called a "genius grant," for her work.

Fights continue over DACA. In July, President Donald Trump's administration said it would continue to reject new DACA applications, but would allow current "Dreamers" to renew protections. This came after the Supreme Court blocked the president from ending DACA, calling the administration "arbitrary and capricious" for how it sought to dismantle the program.

The protections are not solidified into law. There are currently about 650,000 DACA recipients, and an estimated 1.3 million more may be eligible.  

Question: You were 13 when you came to the United States.  I assume you knew what was going on. What did you think when your parents said we're going to the U.S.?

Cristina Jiménez Moreta: I had a lot of hope. I truly believed, like my parents, in the values of this country. So I thought we were coming to a place where they could find work, where we can live with dignity, where we can finally have access to accomplish our dreams and go to school. At the same time, I was really scared of a new place, of a place where I didn't know the language, I didn't know how school worked.

I remember being a 13-year-old exploring high school here in the United States for the first time without knowing the language and just being completely terrified about what will people say about my accent, or will they make fun of me because I didn't speak English. I did experience, like many immigrant kids, bullying in school, but I always thought about the sacrifice of my parents.

They sacrificed so much, leaving all of the people that they knew, their families behind, not knowing if we will be able to see them again. And, unfortunately, both of my grandparents, my mom's side and my dad's side, passed away while we were here and we couldn't even tell them a proper goodbye.

Can you talk about your life in Ecuador and your parents' hopes for you and your brother?

I remember them trying so hard to work, to be able to provide for their kids, and unfortunately the situation in Ecuador and military coup, the economic instability led my parents to be unemployed for many months. Sometimes we didn't have money for food. And that's when it became really clear to them that if they wanted to have a better life for their kids, they needed to do the unthinkable, which was to leave the country.

Cristina Jiménez Moreta calls on Democrats to protect the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, during a rally outside the office of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., in Los Angeles in 2018.
Cristina Jiménez Moreta calls on Democrats to protect the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, during a rally outside the office of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., in Los Angeles in 2018.

Does your organization, or do you, have a thought on how the immigration situation should be solved? 

For the people that we have here in this country, who have lived here with their families, who are here regardless of immigration status, we need to have policies that allow for them to get on a pathway to get immigration status, to have citizenship, to become part of our democracy and to unleash the full contributions that they bring to our country.

The reality is that you have many people right now, regardless of immigration status, who are essential workers, who are people that are keeping America fed in the middle of this pandemic.

The second thing is that we need to think about our immigration policy in ways that are informed by globalization, by climate change, which is continuing to push people out of their home countries.

What do you say to people who say everyone should take the legal path, everyone should wait their turn?

I think that the best way that I've always thought about answering that question, it's just by reminding people of the history of our country. I think it's so important to remember that at one point, our country, our constitution and our democracy did not recognize women, did not recognize Black people.

And as we look at our history, we know that we’ve come from a history of Native American people that were also excluded from our democracy, or Black people that were enslaved for many years and also excluded from our democracy.

So we have been in this journey as a country to really live up to the best of the ideals that founded this country: of justice, of equity for everyone. And I think of immigrants in that same place. Through the history of this country, we've had immigrants that have shaped our democracy, that have improved our country, that have also been exploited in this country for many, many years.

So when I think about the best way to answer that question is to just ground us in that history of inequality and exclusion. But how also wonderful and powerful it has been to see people that have not only pushed back against inequality or against exclusion and discrimination, but also who have put a vision forward of a multiracial democracy that includes all of us, regardless of our gender, our race or our immigration status.

Cristina Jiménez Moreta as a baby with her mother, Ligia Moreta Mancero. Jiménez Moreta celebrates becoming a U.S. citizen last fall with her mother. She says her parents sacrificed a lot to make a better life for their family.CRISTINA JIMÉNEZ MORETA

Part of the young immigrant movement is to share personal stories to humanize the issue. Were you afraid? How did you overcome it?

The first time that I shared my story as an undocumented person (at 19), I was really afraid. I used a fake name. I told people my name was Sandra. I used to tell that to reporters, too. But at that time I was really afraid that I will put my family and myself at danger of deportation. I overcame that moment because I saw the courage of other young women from across the country that were sharing their stories and chanting that they were undocumented and that they were unafraid.

Are you covered by DACA?

I am not covered by DACA. My partner was unfortunately assaulted and that led us to qualifying for a U visa which put us on a path to being able to get immigration status. And after a journey of more than 10 years, we were able to apply for citizenship. I became a citizen last fall, and I will be voting for the first time for president this year in my mid-30s.

Cristina Jiménez Moreta, left, and Ady Barkan, in wheelchair, lead a small delegation to the office of California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, urging the Democrats to protect the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program in Los Angeles,  Jan. 3, 2018.
Cristina Jiménez Moreta, left, and Ady Barkan, in wheelchair, lead a small delegation to the office of California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, urging the Democrats...REED SAXON, AP

Where do you find courage?

I remember learning about the civil rights movement and learning about people like Rosa Parks, who righteously refused to go to the back of the bus. I remember learning about the Freedom Riders and the Montgomery Bus Boycott and all of those were moments of learning for me that inspire me to imagine that, regardless of my immigration status, I could fight for justice. I could fight for dignity for immigrant communities.

And at the same time beyond history, I found courage in looking at how courageous my parents were in leaving everything behind.

Do you have a guiding principle or a mantra, something you tell yourself when you're looking for strength?

My mantra is something that one of my mentors — who is an amazing Mexican American writer, Sandra Cisneros — always tells me. She reminds me that when we do things with love without thinking or wanting any personal gain, but just purely love, that they come out beautifully. For me, ultimately one of the fundamental values that guides my work is love — love for people and love for this country.

When you think about that 13-year-old Cristina who's been told she's going to the United States and how scared she was, what advice would you have for her now?

What I will tell my younger self is to believe in yourself, honor the love of your family, honor your ancestors, honor who you are and where you come from, and shed that shame of not knowing the language, the shame of being brown, the shame of coming from a working-class family and be proud of who you are and where you come from, and know where you're going.

My mom always advised me to treat others the same way that I want to be treated and that all of us as children of God should all be able to live with dignity. I want to tell that Cristina who was 13 and very afraid and with a lot of shame to not be ashamed of who she is and to fight for that vision that my mom shaped for me.


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