KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Luis Mata knows the struggles migrants go through when they come to the United States.
"I migrated to the United States with my mom in 2000 when I was four," he said.
They came to continue the family restaurant business.
"We, you know, had a few businesses here and there, until we didn't. I want to say that that was definitely a rough patch in all of our lives," said Mata.
Mata was undocumented for most of his life, not learning that until he was a teenager and couldn't get a driver's license.
"By not having this piece of paper, you don't have the same access to resources that everybody you've grown up with has," he said.
Luis is a nominee for the Latino Leader Award, part of Centro Hispano's 2021 Latino Awards. He faced a lot of obstacles trying to enroll in college and was able to take classes thanks to the DACA program.
In 2017, 17 years after coming to the U.S. on a work Visa, Mata was finally recognized, and now has just one year left before becoming a full U.S. citizen.
Mata is a recent University of Tennessee graduate. While on campus, he noticed a disconnect between migrant students and the university.
"The University of Tennessee had that gap with the immigrant students that were there, as well as the overall greater Knoxville immigrant community," said Mata. "And because of that gap was really what led us to found Students for Migrant Justice with hope that it would build power amongst student immigrants."
And it did. The group has about 1,500 followers between Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram as they work to influence policies that impact immigrants in Knoxville.
That student work led Mata to the role of Policy Coordinator for the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition.
The first-generation college student continues to make immigrant voices heard one person at a time.
"You hear a lot, 'Oh you're the first of the family, you're the first of your community,'" he said. "But I think that the most important thing is to not be the last."