Fighting for the rights of the immigrant community, Cristina Jiménez (MPA ’11) was identified by the Chronicle of Philanthropy as one of the five most influential nonprofit leaders of 2013.

When Cristina Jiménez (MPA ’11), the managing director and a cofounder of the grassroots, student-led United We Dream Network, met with President Obama, she felt a tremendous sense of “responsibility.” Jiménez joined a select group of labor and business leaders who met with the president in February to discuss immigration reform. “I was at that meeting to represent 11 million people—undocumented immigrants—and I didn’t take that responsibility lightly,” she explains. Her attendance at that meeting represented the culmination of years of advocacy on behalf of the U.S. immigrant community.

For years Jiménez was among their numbers. Traveling on a six-month visa, her family came to the U.S. in 1998 to escape the political turmoil embroiling their native Ecuador. They settled in New York City, where her aunt had emigrated 10 years earlier. Jiménez excelled in high school and only realized the implications of her undocumented status when informed by her guidance counselor that college doors would be closed to her. “I went home crying, ready to give up,” she recalls, “but my mom said she would fight for me and that gave me hope.” Jimenez applied to and was accepted by Queens College/CUNY.

Involvement in student government there led to advocacy for the immigrant community on the local, state, and national levels. The 28-year-old has organized immigrant youth and workers and advocated for comprehensive immigration reform and pro-immigrant legislation since 2004. She and the organization she cofounded, United We Dream, came to national attention during the DREAM Act debate in 2010-11.

According to Jiménez, the most important immigration issue today is out-of-date laws, especially those governing visa caps, deportation, and family reunification. Of the community she champions, she says, “We are determined to fight as hard as we can and be as creative as we can. We want a real path to citizenship; we want to meet the responsibilities of being citizens of this country.” Even as Jiménez acknowledges the work ahead, she pauses for a moment to savor recent accomplishments: “I feel good about the work I and others have done to be at the table.”

Diane Harrigan