PORTLAND, Maine — Around the time that his friends were learning to drive, Fernando Martinez learned to be afraid.
His classmates at Portland High School were getting jobs to pay for driver’s ed., but when Martinez asked if he could do the same, his parents told him that this rite of American teenage passage wasn’t an option. Martinez couldn’t get a job or a license, they said, because he was born in El Salvador.
The fear set in as Martinez began to come to terms with the fact that he lacked legal status in the country where he’d lived since he was four years old, he said.
Fear greeted him when he left home in the morning. And fear stalked him as he walked back from school. After a family friend was deported, Martinez said he began to be scared by the sight of police officers because, “they’re here to protect us, but just me being here could be a crime.”
Now 19, Martinez is one of at least 95 undocumented immigrants in Maine who have received temporary protection from deportation under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, according to United States Citizenship and Immigration Services data. Like many young immigrants, Martinez said his life was changed by the Obama-era program. But as President Donald Trump has publically oscillated over whether to end protections for so-called Dreamers, fear remains his constant companion.
“There’s never a time when I can say confidently that nothing is going to happen,” Martinez said. “It’s like being a little kid afraid of the dark, wrapped in a blanket waiting for a monster to come, waiting for the sunlight.”
Fear among immigrants has increased since the elections, according to Susan Roche, executive director of the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project, as the Trump administration has appeared to use more aggressive immigration enforcement tactics in Maine, including targeting people with legal status in the U.S.
“People have been afraid to renew their work permits,” Roche said. “Especially among people with DACA, there are worries about being swiped up and deported.”
Martinez received protected status under DACA in 2013, around the time that the Obama administration’s deportation push was reaching its height. The program allowed him to get a driver’s license, a Social Security number and permission to work legally in the U.S. For his parents, “it was like winning the lottery,” he recalled.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration has approved 429 applications and replications for status under DACA in Maine since the program’s inception.
His DACA protections, which must be renewed every two years, have helped Martinez became the first person in his family to attend a four-year college. He’s studying biology and business at the University of Southern Maine and spending this summer running a five-person house painting business to help cover tuition.
Martinez is able to afford to go to USM because last summer the college began offering in-state tuition to DACA recipients who reside in Maine. The university had previously charged such people the international student rate but decided to change its policy around the time Martinez was deciding where to go to school, according to Nancy Griffin, USM’s vice president for enrollment management and student affairs.
In-state tuition can be as much as $14,000 less a year and USM has had fewer than 100 students with DACA status, Griffin said.
But the decision about where to study ultimately came down not to finances but to fear, Martinez said.
His dream school was University of Massachusetts, Amherst, which has a well-recognized business program, and he’d won a scholarship to attend, Martinez said. But as the 2017 election approached and then-candidate Trump talked about terminating DACA and ramping up deportations, Martinez decided he couldn’t leave his family.
“At the last minute, I switched over to the University of Southern Maine,” he said, “because if I did go off to college, and came back, they might not be here.”
In college, as in high school, fear has taught Martinez to keep quiet about his status in the U.S. He said he bites his tongue when immigration is being debated in a class or online, and that most of his friends don’t know that he’s not American.
“I don’t really talk about this … and everyone assumes I’m a citizen because they haven’t heard me say I’m not,” he said. “It’s hard to explain to them, because there’s nothing really analogous.“
Following Trump’s election, Martinez raced to renew his DACA status for another two years. And since November, Immigration and Customs Enforcement has sharply increased the number of immigrant arrests in New England and appear to have introduced more aggressive enforcement strategies to Maine.
Like many in Maine’s estimated population of fewer than 5,000 immigrants without legal status, Martinez said he’s still afraid. And the president’s decision last week not to immediately eliminate the DACA program has been little comfort.
But despite the fear and uncertainty, Martinez said he’s felt an increasing need to speak publicly about his experience, to let classmates and people around him know that when they disparage illegal immigrants, they are talking about him.
“So many people just have this mindset that if someone is an illegal immigrant they’ve done something bad,” he said. “Instead of making assumptions, [I wanted them to] hear the story from someone who’s lived it.”
Correction: This story has been corrected to reflect uncertainty about the total number of people who have received DACA protections in Maine.