Then the Trump administration stopped accepting new applicants, as part of its plans to phase out DACA, which President Trump and his top deputies call an illegal example of executive overreach.
A federal judge has ordered the government to continue renewing permits for the estimated 690,000 young immigrants already in the program while a legal challenge to ending it is pending.
The court ruled that the government does not have to accept new applications, however, leaving Martinez — now a 16-year-old high school sophomore — and potentially thousands of other immigrants in limbo as they edge closer to adulthood.
“I’m not quite sure what to do now,” said Martinez, who is captain of the lacrosse team at his Baltimore County high school and wants to become a civil engineer. “I had planned on applying as soon as possible.”
The Migration Policy Institute estimates that there are 120,000 immigrants brought to the United States illegally as children who would turn 15 and become eligible for DACA protections over the next four years.
Immigrant advocates say that pool of people illustrates the need for a legislative replacement for DACA, an idea that has stalled multiple times in Congress and was left out of the spending deal reached on Capitol Hill on Thursday to avoid a looming government-shutdown deadline. Lawmakers appear unlikely to focus again on the issue anytime soon.
“The fact that there are thousands of immigrant young people who are now at that point where they need to be protected just shows you how important it is to have permanent legislation,” said Bruna Bouhid, spokeswoman for United We Dream, an advocacy group for the young immigrants known as “dreamers.”
Some state legislatures are offering alternative relief to would-be DACA recipients, with bills that allow undocumented immigrants to qualify for driver’s licenses, in-state tuition and some health benefits.
A bill that would broaden Maryland’s 2012 Dream Act to allow in-state tuition for people who do not have DACA or temporary protected status recently passed the House of Delegates and is awaiting a vote in the state Senate. Maryland already allows undocumented immigrants who do not have DACA protection to get driver’s licenses, a privilege not available in 37 other states, according to the National Council of State Legislatures.
In other states, however, there are no laws offering benefits to undocumented immigrants. Legislation that would have allowed driver’s licenses and in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants died in committee in the Virginia General Assembly this year.
Like Martinez, Fairfax City high school junior Gerry Pinto held off on applying for DACA after turning 15. He and his family were unsure how the 2016 presidential election would affect the program. They, too, worried about the application fee.
When Trump began to signal that he planned to end the program, they rushed in an application last summer, said Ambar Pinto, Gerry’s older sister.
But they left a box unchecked on the form, Ambar Pinto said. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency that administers DACA, sent back the application with instructions to resubmit it completed.
By then, Trump had canceled the program. The resubmitted application was turned down.
“I had to sit down with my brother and explain to him what this meant,” said Ambar Pinto, who manages a deportation defense hotline for United We Dream. She said her brother, who declined to be interviewed, is now unsure whether he will attend college.
“I say: ‘No, don’t say that. We’ll figure it out,’ ” she said. “But that’s not what he hears. What he hears is that all the scholarships are focused on DACA recipients.”
Guillermo Martinez, 18, said he has been monitoring negotiations in Congress as he prepares to graduate from his Baltimore County high school in June.
He applied for DACA when he was 14, only to learn that he was a few months too young.
Last year, he began preparing an application again. But he gave up when Republican leaders in 10 states threatened to sue the Trump administration in federal court in an effort to shut down the program. That threat, Trump has said, is what ultimately led him to his attempt to end DACA.
“My plan was to go to a good college,” said Guillermo Martinez, who was brought to the United States from Honduras when he was 3 and hopes to study business and marketing. “But it looks like I’ll have to stick to community college.”