ORANGE CITY, Iowa | Northwestern College graduate Martha Draayer has a master's degree from the University of South Dakota. She and husband, Dan Draayer, have three children. Martha has two loving parents, two supportive sisters.
Martha has a job at the Northwest Area Education Agency, where she serves as a bilingual early childhood special education teacher and consultant. She's also an instructor in Northwestern's Master of Education degree program.
Martha Draayer's future, however, remains shrouded in mystery, for she's also a "dreamer," a newcomer covered in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program instituted by President Barack Obama's executive order in 2012.
She is not a U.S. citizen, and remains living, working and waiting, enduring her ninth year of a 10-year bar on citizenship.
While some lawmakers lead you to believe that all illegal aliens from Mexico are rapists, murderers and drug runners, Martha Draayer and millions like her, represent kinder, gentler newcomers, mothers and fathers, students and workers bent on making life in the one country they largely know a better place for themselves and those they love.
Draayer spoke to Northwestern staff members and the student body on Tuesday, sharing details of her faith and complicated life journey as part of Justice Week, which began with the observance of the holiday honoring the legacy of justice seeker Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Draayer was 3 years old when she crossed from Mexico into the U.S. the first time, following her mother, Martha Perez, and joining little sister, Angelica, as they headed north to Sibley, Iowa, to reunite with her father, Andres Perez, who traveled north in March 1991 to fill a job on the kill floor at Monfort Foods, then a pork processing plant at Worthington, Minnesota.
The family left home carrying border-crossing visas, a type of long-term tourist visa that, according to Martha Draayer, no longer exists. "We overstayed our welcome," she said.
The economy in Mexico wobbled at the time. Work was plentiful in Northwest Iowa for Martha and Andres Perez, who worked in the packing plant, then at local farms, then for a Sioux Center industry for a decade before settling back to handle cattle and hogs for a farm outside Orange City, where Andres currently works.
The couple had another daughter while living in Iowa. All three girls were educated in Sioux County. Martha earned a 3.8 grade-point average before graduating from Boyden-Hull High School in 2005.
And while she had a Social Security number for education purposes only, young Martha couldn't qualify for financial aid beyond academic and music scholarships. She didn't even have a driver's license, an outcome of being unable to produce a birth certificate required to take driver's education courses. At age 16, she recalled, an officer pulled her over for having an expired license plate. Upon learning Martha didn't have a license, the officer drove her home and gave her a warning.
Prompted by an admissions counselor, Northwestern College officials met with Martha and her parents and they took a chance on the Comet graduate. She majored in psychology and K-12 education and minored in Spanish. She didn't earn a major in Spanish because she would have been required to study abroad. Knowing she couldn't travel outside the U.S. -- and have assurance of returning -- she settled for a minor. It's the same reason she eschewed the chance to participate in NWC music groups, as bands and choirs often travel to perform outside the U.S.
As a junior at Northwestern in 2007, Martha wed Dan Draayer, a U.S. citizen who works as produce manager for Fareway in Sioux Center. The newlyweds embarked on the naturalization process immediately, one that took the couple back to Mexico for a meeting before the U.S. Consulate in Martha's hometown, Ciudad Juarez.
"I went before the consulate for an interview. He had my papers and asked if I had entered the U.S. illegally," she remembered. She had, twice. The first took place when she was 3. The second when her parents returned the family to Mexico for a 5-month period during Martha's junior year at Boyden-Hull. Her parents found Mexico's economy in a shambles and life uncertain, if not unsafe, for their daughters. So, they returned to Hull and their work on Sioux County farms.
"I knew I had committed a violation and I expected a fine," Martha said.
The official turned her down and said she wasn't available for a waiver. He imposed a 10-year bar on Martha from entering the U.S.
Said Martha, "I was in shock, numb."
She was forced to stay in Mexico as Dan and his mother, Brenda Draayer, returned to Iowa. Martha went to live with her grandmother in Coahuila, Mexico, as family members implored leaders at Northwestern to write letters on Martha's behalf. Letters were sent by Iowa Sens. Chuck Grassley and Tom Harkin as well.
"Nothing changed," said Martha, who finished her senior year by emailing assignments and papers back to professors at Northwestern.
As her case stalled over a 13-month time frame, Martha was contacted by her lawyer in the U.S. She learned changes could be coming in immigration, changes that may force her to remain thousands of miles from her husband and the way of life she knew in Northwest Iowa. She came to the realization her best option would be risky: It would involve hiring a "coyote" to help her cross again, illegally, into the U.S.
"It was hard to put myself in that situation," she said. "But I really didn't think I had other options. Thankfully, I saw God's hand in it."
At the risk of being raped, murdered or exploited, the lone woman in a group of five to 10 men, Martha set out and made the crossing, floating in an inner tube across the Rio Grande River and joining a man she didn't know in sneaking into the U.S. in the dead of night. She passed within 50 feet of a border patrol officer.
A relative met her at a park and transported her to a motel, whereupon she was reunited with her husband and mother-in-law, and, together, the three of them drove north, back to Iowa.
Two years later, Martha qualified for protection under Obama's executive order that created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, a program the Trump administration seeks to end, beginning in March.
"And now, I wait," she said. "I don't know what the president is going to do."
As Martha Draayer spoke in Christ Chapel on Tuesday, lawmakers on Capitol Hill girded for a showdown involving the program and immigration as a whole. Draayer talked about the fallacy of newcomers who are directed to "get in line."
"There is no line," she contended. "I was petitioned by my husband and I still can't get in line."
At 31, this educated mother of three works each day to educate children in Sioux Center and beyond. She's now sharing her personal story in the hopes young and old are motivated out of empathy, or love, or justice to persuade legislators to address a broken immigration system.
"My status is still pending," she said. "I have a whole year to wait before I can apply for citizenship. I do not know what that process will bring. [Tweet this]
"Moving forward there needs to be a pathway to citizenship," she concluded. "It must be passed as a bill, a law. Not as an executive order that can come and go. We need a pathway, not just for 'dreamers' but their parents as this can still break families apart."