However, Perales Sanchez excelled academically in high school and was accepted to Harvard University, as well as her dream school, Princeton.
But with the imminent threat of deportation and without legal authorization to work or qualify for federal financial aid, going to Princeton seemed impossible.
The introduction of DACA in 2012 opened a door. Under the initiative, undocumented immigrants were shielded from deportation if they met a set of requirements, passed a stringent background check, and paid an application fee of nearly $500 to renew it every two years. DACA also allowed people to obtain work permits and, in some states, drivers' licenses.
Through an aspect of DACA called "advance parole," Perales Sanchez was even able to travel for a semester at Oxford University and volunteered in Mexico with Centro de Los Derechos del Migrante, the nonprofit migrant rights organization where she now works full-time.
Then, Republican Donald Trump, who had promised on the campaign trail to end DACA, was elected president in November 2016. That month, in response to concern on campus about the possible end of the program, Princeton's lawyers met with DACA students to determine how to support them, according to university spokesperson Ben Chang.
In September 2017, the Trump administration ordered an end to DACA. Perales Sanchez was one of nearly 700,000 DACA recipients left in limbo.
"After considering the potential risks to herself and her family, Maria -- whose courage and commitment continue to shine forth to this day -- decided to join the university in filing a lawsuit and to use her own name (rather than proceeding as a Jane Doe) despite those risks," Chang said.
Perales Sanchez, who in her senior year was co-director of DREAM Team, an immigrant rights organization on campus, felt her leadership and voice were necessary in the legal battle.
"I wanted to stand with the migrant community, and this was a very particular opportunity ... not every campus was asking to take on a lawsuit. So, I knew I was at a particular place for a reason," Perales Sanchez said.
Princeton, together with Perales Sanchez, filed its lawsuit in November 2018 in federal court in Washington, D.C., claiming the government's actions violated the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, including its guarantee of equal protection under the law, as well as the Administrative Procedure Act.