In the early 2000s, a gang killing of a nephew drove Adolfo Martinez’s mother away from her native Honduras. She fled with Adolfo in her arms, then about a year old, and joined her husband, who was already working in the United States. Here, his parents do not practice what they set out to do as young adults. But coming to the U.S. — even without documentation — meant that their children might have opportunities they did not.

Martinez, by all measures, thrived. Growing up in Owings Mills, he served as a Boy Scout, tutored middle schoolers and volunteered with his church. When it came time to apply for colleges, he was accepted into eight out of 10 schools. The 21-year-old student is currently a junior majoring in forensic studies at Loyola University Maryland and an Ultimate Frisbee competitor.

Despite his parents’ sacrifices and Martinez’s achievements, his dreams may be cut short.

Martinez is facing deportation even though he should be eligible for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), an Obama-era program that shields immigrants who came to the country as children from deportation and provides work authorization, his lawyer said.

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Years of political jousting between Democrats and Republicans over extending the program, a critical shortage of affordable immigration legal services and a failed attempt to seek asylum have put Martinez in the crosshairs of federal authorities.

Adolfo Martinez, a junior at Loyola, poses for a portrait on campus, Monday, March 6, 2023. (Jessica Gallagher/The Baltimore Banner)

Undocumented immigrants such as Martinez are “very much at the mercy of a system that is just a constant tug-of-war,” said Jacob Lichtenbaum, an attorney representing Martinez pro bono through CASA, a group that advocates for Latino, immigrant and working-class people in Maryland and across the country .

Martinez’s struggle comes amid a polarizing national debate over the issue, with some painting undocumented immigrants as a threat and others deeming them essential to the country and worthy of a path to citizenship, Lichtenbaum said.

Caught in the middle are more than a million immigrants like Martinez. In Maryland alone, there are an estimated 13,000 individuals who could qualify for DACA and only 7,200 who are in the program, according to the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. A majority of people in deportation proceedings do not have legal representation, and immigrants with attorneys “fare better at every stage of the court process.

Without protection from deportation, young people like Martinez are at risk of being separated from their families and sent to countries they have not known since they were children or babies.

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He faced a far different life had his family stayed in Honduras, a Central American country struggling with poverty and with gang violence and organized crime.

After living in Florida for a few years as recent arrivals, the family settled in a ground-floor apartment with a yard in Baltimore County. His mother had two more children, now 16 and 17, both of whom are U.S. citizens. Growing up, Martinez played lacrosse with his baby brother in the yard and hung out with neighborhood kids in the park. His mother spent afternoons watching reruns of “CSI” — both Miami and New York — and viewed the entire “Dexter” series at their home. The shared time with his mother eventually led him to study forensics.

“If there’s the slightest possibility of someone like Adolfo being deported — someone who has never done anything wrong and has contributed so much, even as a young adult — our immigration system is entirely broken,” said Trent Leon-Lierman, CASA’s Maryland organizing director who has known Martinez and his family since 2012. Martinez was a kid then, accompanying his parents to press conferences and meetings with members of Congress, advocating for immigration reform.

”They were all looking for a life out of the shadows moving forward,” Leon-Lierman said.

In November, Martinez rallied with other advocates outside the U.S. Capitol and met a number of lawmakers and their staff members. He wanted to inspire Congress to pass legislation protecting the DREAMers brought to the U.S. as children, and shared his experience of growing up without many of the same opportunities as his peers and of the uncertainty he faces after college.

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”He was nervous to do it, and he did it anyway,” Leon-Lierman said. “That’s just an example of Adolfo. He’s not going to let that fear hold him back from doing what’s right, even when it’s hard.”

His citizenship status was never kept secret in his family, though Martinez didn’t fully understood its implications until he got older. His mother didn’t let him play sports during his early childhood, worried he would be injured when his family didn’t have health insurance. He never went on international mission trips with his church, a small Presbyterian congregation in Reisterstown, due to his documentation status.

From a young age, Martinez’s dream was to go to college, said Dinorah Olmos. He and his mother cried once thinking he would not be able to go because of the cost and his citizenship status. Students living in the U.S. without legal authorization often do not have the financial resources to pay for college, Olmos said.

“But they do have what they own — and that is their intelligence, their brightness,” said Olmos, the founding president of the Latino Education and Advancement Fund, a nonprofit organization that helps Latino families navigate the education system.

“And that is what makes them soar above anything else,” she added.

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When Martinez turned 15, his family looked into obtaining legal status for him through DACA. But Republican Donald Trump had just been elected president after disparaging Mexican immigrants as rapists and criminals and vowing to build a wall to keep immigrants from crossing the southern border into the United States.

Immigration rights advocacy groups feared the new administration would misuse personal information on file to track down and deport DACA recipients, so a volunteer attorney with CASA advised the family against applying for the program, Martinez said.

Instead, the family applied for asylum for Martinez around his 18th birthday. His mother and her friend filed the paperwork together out of desperation and worry for her son. She did not think to look for an immigration lawyer at the time due to the cost, trusting her well-intentioned friend who had gone through the process before.

But asylum is a complex area of the law — one that can vary based on the case, said Valeria Gomez, an assistant professor of law at the University of Baltimore who heads its Immigrant Rights Clinic. Generally, it protects people from being removed from the U.S. if they applied within a year of their arrival, and can give immigrants a pathway to a lawful permanent residence or citizenship.

Applicants need to show they have been persecuted in the past or that they have a well-founded fear of persecution in the future due to their race, religion, political opinion, nationality or membership in a particular social group that is defined by “common immutable characteristics.” It’s a confusing process, Gomez emphasized.

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Martinez’s lawyer doesn’t know what led federal authorities to determine that he was not eligible for asylum. He said CASA filed Martinez’s DACA application in March 2021 when the case was brought to their attention, but the program was enjoined a couple of months afterward. Lichtenbaum says Martinez could be especially vulnerable in Honduras as a recent deportee.

“Recent deportees … are perceived as having lots of money by virtue of having lived in America,” Lichtenbaum said. “They don’t have the same strength, the same familial networks to fall back on as other people do, and so he would just be in an extremely vulnerable position.”

Sitting in one of the halls at Loyola University Maryland, Martinez says he tries to take it day by day. He tries not to talk about it with his parents, who are already distraught. Martinez constantly catches his mother in thought, hoping for the best but worried about the worst.

He tries not to let it affect him. He continues to wake up and go to classes on campus and practices Ultimate Frisbee three times a week with his new-found community.

But there are days he wakes up and feels sluggish. It’s a jarring reality that things could change soon. A preliminary court hearing is scheduled for May that could pave the way for an individual hearing, where an immigration judge would hear Martinez’s case and determine whether the college student will be ordered removed from the U.S. or granted relief.

He tries to stay positive. He talks with dialed-back enthusiasm about what he wants to do when he graduates; ideally, he could start off working with the police department as a crime scene investigator technician. His mother had begun to study criminal justice, but was never able to enter the field. She loved the idea that he could do what she was never able to achieve. His father is proud too, even though he joked that he was upset that his son had dropped engineering.

Someday, perhaps, he could become an expert analysis working along lawyers.

But he doesn’t dare to dream beyond that.

“It’s one of those kinds of things that [is] out of my control for the most part,” he explained.

Martinez has no idea what would await him in Honduras, should he be deported. He said he’ll rely on his parents to tell him about the country where he was born. His parents remember their homeland for its beauty and tell him what they miss: the sandy beaches, the deep coastal waters from which the country got its name, and verdant mountain ranges.

They also remember the fear and bloodshed that made them leave and seek a better life.

This story has been updated to note that CASA also sought DACA status for Martinez and that a hearing scheduled for May is a preliminary hearing.