At age 20, Azalia Martinez doesn’t really remember much about crossing the desert.

She was only 3 when her mother packed up her and her two brothers for a treacherous, two-week trek on foot from Guerrero, Mexico, to the U.S. border.

Crossing into Arizona, they’d be concealed in a car, then driven 30 straight hours to a neighborhood called Gage Park in a city called Chicago, reuniting with Martinez’ father who’d come a year earlier, working three jobs to save enough money to send for them.

“I only have little snippets of memories from the desert,” said Martinez, of the South Side, a junior at Northeastern Illinois University. “I remember Mom telling us not to cry, and having to be very still. I remember being very, very thirsty, and Mom having to beg people for water, who said ‘No,’ because it was their lifeline, then someone finally saying, ‘OK.'”

“I remember when it got dark, there’d be all these flashing lights, and you had to be really, really quiet and still. I remember to hide, I crawled under a thorny bush, got scratched up, and was really upset, and my Mom saying, ‘Scratches are the least of your problems.'”

Along the trek, her family encountered many other individuals and families from Mexico and South America who were also walking toward what they believed the American Dream.

Seventeen years later, Martinez is a student at Northeastern Illinois University — and is among 800,000 young people nationwide, including 42,000 in Illinois, who have pursued that dream under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

Northeastern University student Azalia Martinez was fearful we she heard about the end of DACA. But now she’s determined to fight. | Kevin Tanaka/For the Sun Times

She and other so-called “Dreamers” were jolted wide awake last week when President Donald Trump announced his decision to terminate the DACA program created under a 2012 executive order by President Barack Obama, to protect from deportation young, undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as children.

“I was in my psychology class when my phone started going. I got like five calls and 13 texts, and put them off, until it was my mom. Then I stepped out of the classroom, because I knew she was worried,” said Martinez, a dual biology and psychology major who hopes to attend graduate school to study neuroscience. “I knew I had to be strong for her. I said, ‘I’m OK.'”

But after class, she feverishly hit the internet, consuming all information available from several immigration advocacy sites, including UndocuMedia and United We Dream.

“I went straight to the ‘What You Need to Know,'” Martinez said.

“You know how in the movies you see someone doing something, but they’re not really there, like, ‘out-of-body’? That’s how it was. I’ve tried to be prepared for anything, but when reality hit, I was scared,” said Martinez, who just started at Northeastern Illinois after completing her associate’s degree in May through City Colleges of Chicago’s STAR Scholarship Program.

“There was a knot in my throat, and I wanted to cry,” said the young woman, who graduated from Jones College Prep, a CPS magnet school, with a 4.3 GPA. Before that, she was valedictorian of her eighth-grade class at Dawes Elementary.

A rally was held at Federal Plaza in the Loop last week in response to the White House’s decision to terminate the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. | James Foster/For the Sun-Times

DACA status has been available to applicants who arrived in the U.S. before 2007, were under the age of 16 when they arrived, and have no serious criminal histories. Granted temporary status, recipients can work legally in the U.S. for renewable two-year periods.

Martinez was awarded DACA status in 2013 — which meant being able to get a Social Security card, state ID and work permit. Her first job was at Party City, then Chicago Sweet Connection Bakery. Now she works for GEAR UP Chicago, a youth academic mentoring program, in a college work-study arrangement.

She feels blessed to have graduated Chicago Public Schools the same year that Mayor Rahm Emanuel launched the STAR program, which offers CPS students who post a 3.0 GPA or higher and ACT scores of 17 three years free tuition and books at city colleges. Among the program’s inaugural class, she graduated in May, transferring to Northeastern.

Her DACA status, renewed in 2015, was set to expire this summer. She re-applied in February, as rumors swirled that DACA could be rescinded. June rolled around. Her DACA status expired. She had to quit working, and felt panic, because she depends on work to subsidize her scholarships. Her renewal finally came last week.

But so did validation of the rumors that now have her future hanging in the balance.

“It’s been a roller coaster,” said the Dreamer.

“The day it came down, NEIU’s president issued a statement, so I felt very supported in that way; and I attended a meeting open only to undocumented students — there’s about 300 of us — which provided a safe space to process. I’m not scared anymore. I’m not accepting it. I’m ready to fight, because you know, contrary to popular opinion, this is my country. The only country I’ve ever known.”