Cristina Jiménez Moreta, co-founder and director of the immigration advocacy group United We Dream (UWD), was recognized recently as a “genius” by the prestigious MacArthur Foundation for her innovative creativity in turning her own struggles into a nationally renowned movement.
The enterprising advocate also had a hand in the very beginnings of Long Island Wins, serving as a member of its steering committee in its infancy, helping to direct its visions and strategy of opening the “hearts and minds of Long Islanders by sharing stories, as well as running educational campaigns at first that would lift up the facts and realities of immigrants on the island.”
“Long Island Wins is proud to have had an exceptional individual like Cristina play an early part in shaping the direction of our organization as a member of the steering committee,” Executive Director Maryann Sinclair Slutsky said. “We are excited to see how Cristina will use this grant for a greater good.”
“I’m very thankful for the opportunity to have had the privilege to be a part of the steering committee at Long Island Wins from the start…And for me, it was a critical opportunity to join others in the shared vision of changing the narrative in the sentiment of immigration on Long Island,” Jiménez said.
The foundation’s committee researches and selects candidates for the grants, but keeps that under wraps until the winners are actually selected.
“It was really unexpected…I was definitely not expecting this. When I got the news it took me some time to actually realize what was happening. My first reaction was, ‘is this happening?’” Jiménez said.
Jiménez will receive the $625,000 grant in installments over a period of five years. Jiménez aims to use the funds to further her work in empowering young people, with some also going back into UWD.
“I really thought that this was a recognition of my parents’ sacrifices and of undocumented immigrants and undocumented families that are here, as well as the undocumented young people that I work with to create change,” Jiménez said.
With her leadership, UWD has expanded to encompass 48 affiliates across 26 states with more than 400,000 members.
Hailing from Quito, Ecuador, Jiménez arrived in the United States at 13 years old, with her parents leaving behind their homeland to flee poverty in search of a better life. But, even after settling here, she found it difficult to confront the issue of her own legal status.
Growing up in Queens, they continued their struggle against poverty, endured police abuse and wage theft, and lived in fear of deportation.
In her work, Jiménez has sought to transform the national dialogue on immigration and humanize immigrants that all too often are boiled down to facts, figures, and policy, rather than people.
“To me, it speaks to and recognizes the courage of the young people that came out, like me, in the early 2000s sharing our stories to bring light to the struggle of undocumented communities and to seek change,” Jiménez said. “That has led to the courage of young people to fight against the criminalization of immigrants, deportations, that has brought us victories.”
And, she is further connected to Long Island through her partner, Walter Barrientos, who serves as the Long Island Organizing Director for Make The Road New York. Barrientos also helped found United We Dream with Jiménez. They first met as undergraduates in the City University of New York (CUNY), where Jiménez attended Queens College and Barrientos attended Baruch College.
“We both were students in CUNY and were organizing undocumented students there and so our journey was really an organizing journey and a journey of coming out as undocumented and being not afraid, and organizing other young people when nobody was doing it.” said Jiménez, who eventually obtained a green card.
“The vision that we have for our communities—whether that is New York State or Long Island—that we have communities where young people, immigrants and people of color can live without fear and with dignity and pride,” Jiménez added.
Now, amid the volatile political climate and streak of aggressive immigration enforcement, Jiménez said the primary issue now is protecting young people left in the dark after the termination of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).
She said about 21,000 were not able to reapply to renew their status, thanks to the “very arbitrary deadline” set by the Trump administration. The solution now, she said, is the passage of a clean DREAM Act, free of border security add-ons.
“We hope to get this done before the holidays because every day that passes, young people fear arrest for deportation,” Jiménez said. “It is bipartisan, it has support from Republicans and Democrats, and we have been very clear that we as young people and folks that are directly impacted [should] not be used as bargaining chips to hurt the rest of the community or our own parents who are undocumented.”