Miami-Dade County

August 3, 2014

For hundreds of undocumented parents, Miami activist serves as a voice for their children

A longtime Miami activist, armed with legal authority from hundreds of undocumented parents, is fighting for the rights of their American-born children.

Marisella Gabriel thrusts her 3-month-old daughter into Nora Sandigo’s arms. The baby gurgles, the edges of her diaper peeking out from her pink onesie.

“Look, she’s a beautiful baby,” Gabriel said, laughing and urging Sandigo to take the infant.

Sandigo took the little girl — this time, just for the moment. Next time, it could be for much longer.

Gabriel is one of hundreds of undocumented immigrants who — driven by fear of deportation — have signed a power-of-attorney giving Sandigo authority over their own, American-born, children. At last count, Sandigo has become a sort of legal guardian angel for more than 800 such kids, and she says the requests continue to come.

Sandigo, a longtime immigration activist who lives in a Miami suburb, is working in a gray zone of family and immigration law, striving to help families who fear deportation could force their children — American citizens — into a faceless state child-care bureaucracy.

She has taken the extraordinary step, she says, out of a fierce belief that the civil rights of those children are being violated by an immigration system that would expel their parents. Her efforts are part altruism, part political statement: She filed a class-action lawsuit over parental deportation policies with the U.S. Supreme Court years ago, which did not accept the case, but she plans to try again.

Last week, she took 14 of her wards to Washington with her to help make the case for reform. She met with South Florida Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart , Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Joe Garcia.

“Every American citizen has the right to be protected by their government,” said Sandigo, who herself was a Nicaraguan refugee separated from her parents as a teen. “At least they need to have the right to have a family. If we fight as Americans in other countries for fairness and justice, why don’t we fight for our kids to have rights at home?”

For many undocumented immigrants, Sandigo serves as a Plan B — an emergency backup for people who have few rights and little recourse otherwise. She sees herself as filling a gap in a social safety net that does little to help families, many living in South Florida, that federal agents could potentially break apart at any time.

Over half of Sandigo’s children live in the Miami area, she says, with the rest scattered across other states. They still live with their parents, relatives or the friends of parents, sometimes also undocumented immigrants — although Sandigo says she has temporarily housed some of them.

Sandigo, 48, owns two small businesses and has a husband and two teenagers of her own. But she devotes much of each day to her growing extended family, buying them everything from food to computers and holding biweekly parties at her small West Perrine farm. Last weekend, about 40 of them kids showed up to dribble basketballs, chow down on the South American corn dish nacatamal, hit a piñata and gawk at the geese.

Alfonzo Oviedo, a family law attorney who works with Sandigo at American Fraternity, a small nonprofit they run to help the immigrant population, described Sandigo’s arrangements with immigrant parents as a sort of pre-guardianship.

He believes the forms parents have signed with her starting around 2008 — which now take up six filing cabinets in a back room of her home office — would allow Sandigo to seek legal guardianship if both parents are deported. The broader goal, he and Sandigo say, is to protect the kids and give voice to parents unable or afraid to speak for themselves in schools, hospitals and American courts.

Sandigo’s claim of legal guardianship of more than 800 kids earned her a lengthy Washington Post profile last month and a string of follow-up national and international coverage. “Surrogate mom” to hundreds makes a compelling angle to highlight U.S. immigration laws already under withering scutiny because of the surge of unaccompanied minors illegally flooding in along the nation’s southwestern border.

But in reality, the extent of Sandigo’s legal authority is ill-defined. Though she says she’s a legal guardian, Sandigo acknowledges she’s never appeared before a judge or filed documents with any government agency on behalf of the children.

Richard Milstein, a Miami lawyer who specializes in guardianship and family law, said that while parents can sign over guardianship to a family member, Florida law explicitly states it can only be granted to “members of their extended family.”

“As far as I know, a court proceeding is required to become the legal guardian of child,” Milstein said.

Still, even if she’s not a court-sanctioned guardian, Sandigo says she has repeatedly put her collection of power-of-attorneys to everyday use, using them to sign paperwork at schools, hospitals and passport agencies.

Milstein said that was plausible.

“There’s the practical approach to life, and then there’s the legal approach,” he said. Sandigo’s “basically been authorized to assist these minor children by their parent or parents.”

Helena Tetzeli, who has practiced immigration law for over 20 years in Miami, said she understood the parents’ motivations.

“These parents, because of their immigration status, are scared of reaching out to the state or anyone in the government, for that matter. That’s probably one reason they’re doing it in this apparently ad hoc, unregulated way,” she said. “They know [Sandigo] and trust her. They know she’s not going to call immigration. That’s my guess — they don’t want to interface with the government, because they’re scared of the government.”

State and federal agencies wouldn’t discuss the legality of Sandigo’s efforts or even say if they are aware of them.

A spokeswoman for Florida’s Department of Children and Family Services, which would typically oversee parentless children, would not comment on what, if any, role the agency plays in monitoring the fates of American-born children whose parents face deporation and said the topic was under Immigrations and Customs Enforcement’s purview.

Vincent Picard, the Eastern Seaboard spokesman for ICE — the federal department responsible for enforcing immigration law — said there wasn’t a hard-and-fast rule for dealing with such familes. Agents, he said, do have “prosecutorial discretion” in deciding how to handle undocumented parents with American-born children, as part of a 2011 policy under which the agency began to prioritize deporting undocumented immigrants with criminal backgrounds. Before the advent of prosecutorial discretion, the practice of deporting both parents without their child took place more frequently.

Picard said the agency now can choose to let a non-criminal undocumented immigrant who is sole caregiver of a child stay in the country.

“ICE takes great care to evaluate cases that warrant humanitarian release,” he said in an email. “For parents who are ordered removed, it is their decision whether or not to relocate their children with them.”

The policy changes appear geared to prevent single parents without a criminal background from being deported. Yet Sandigo estimates about 5 percent of her kids have seen both their parents deported. ICE did not provide statistics on how it deals with the undocumented parents of American-born children .

Years ago, Sandigo’s children might have been dubbed “anchor babies,” back when U.S. law allowed citizen children to petition for green cards for their parents, Tetzeli said. But that policy was dropped because critics argued it gave undocumented immigrants an incentive to have children as an “anchor” that would keep them in the country.

Now, once deportation proceedings begin for undocumented immigrants, the standard for halting them is “virtually impossible” to meet, Tetzeli said. Qualifying immigrants must have resided for 10 years in the United States, have no criminal record and their removal must pose “exceptionally and extremely unusual hardship” to their U.S. citizen spouses or children.

Unless ICE exercises its “prosecutorial discretion,” there is little governmental recourse for undocumented immigrants facing deportation, Tetzeli said, calling it a “loophole in the law.”

That’s why, Sandigo says, so many have turned to her for help.

Even before she first became “guardian” for the children of undocumented immigrants, Sandigo spent much of her time in America advocating for those struggling to make it here. Sent away by her family to protect her during the Sandinista uprising in Nicaragua, she first fled to Venezuela and then to France, ultimately coming to the U.S. with a visa in 1988. It was then that she began working in the Florida office of Church World Service, an organization that aids immigrants and refugees.

In the late 1980s, seeking to become more directly involved with familes, she formed the nonproft American Fraternity, a small group she heads as executive director. The organization receives about $39,000 in funding from Miami-Dade County, which Sandigo says barely covers a part-time assistant, car insurance and food supplies.

The success of small family businesses — a nursing home and a plant nursery — has allowed her to devote more time and money to her efforts. She insists she makes no profits from her work for familes and says many of the expenses, like the biweekly reunions for the kids, come out of her own pocket.

Sandigo repeatedly calls her work a blessing. The greatest need children have is for family, she says, and “they are my family.”

“It’s something I feel I need to do, as an immigrant, as a woman, as a mother, as a Christian,” she said. “Someone needs to do it.”

Sometimes with the help of other American Fraternity members, Sandigo delivers boxes of food, toys and clothing to immigrant families all over Miami every day.

A recent surge of media coverage has raised the profile of her group and campaign but also increased the demands on her time.

Sitting in her home office on a recent weekday morning, empty coffee cups around her, her three cellphones rang almost constantly. Most days she would field requests for food from local immigrant families and inquiries about guardianship for even more children, but these days, the calls are also for interviews.

The BBC was there recently, along with Russian TV interviewing her in the small back room where she keeps her filing cabinets and boxes of bulk canned foods.

Sandigo — wearing a navy American Fraternity shirt, hot pink sneakers on her feet — gamely packed reporters into her red minivan, wedging a box of plastic rooster toys between them, three gallons of milk by their feet and trashbags of donated clothes in the trunk. There were two families to visit, in Miami Beach and Homestead. Maybe Little Havana, too, she said. The seats were rearranged to make it all fit, and then it was off to Miami Beach, fiddling with the GPS the whole while.

Driving along a palm tree-edged road, orange and yellow plastic rooster toys rattling in the back seat, Sandigo’s conversations were punctuated by the ringing of her cellphones.

“S’cuse me,” she said, picking up the phone, “Claudia! Vamos a visitarte.” We’re going to visit you.

The media attention has prompted criticism as well as support, she said, with some calling her placement of children with friends and family members irresponsible.

But Sandigo said the most conspicuous silence has been from the government, something she’s hoping her visit to Washington and her court challenge will change. All those parents who signed over power of attorney, she said, also agreed to sign their children on to another federal lawsuit.

But Sandigo admitted she can only do so much to help so many.

“They know we don’t charge anything, don’t ask for anything,” she said. “We just want to help. That’s the most important thing — we’re not promising anything. It’s what’s happening. We try to do a little bit of something.”

For Claudia Fonseca and her four children, that little bit of something was a brand-new laptop Sandigo’s husband bought at Best Buy. Their father was deported back to Nicaragua a few years ago, and Kelvin, 16, needed a computer to do his homework. The family also got some boxes of food and clothes, and hot pizza for the kids. The little girls opened their toys as Sandigo talked to Kelvin in the one bedroom the whole family shares. Sandigo became their paper “guardian” over a month ago.

Next, it was off to Sedano’s to restock the dwindling groceries — Sandigo was most concerned about the one remaining gallon of milk, needed to make tortillas — and then to an apartment in Homestead, where five more children are on her list. At one point, Sandigo made a mental addition of the number of kids parents have entrusted to her — 817.

How does she keep track? Sandigo laughed.

“I don’t know,” she said.

It was 7 p.m. when the minivan finally inched back into the driveway of Sandigo’s orange-and-red home. All the food that filled her car was long gone — and the minivan doesn’t hold all that she would like to deliver in a day.

Inside her office, where a George Washington bust adorns her desk, and a large American flag stands in the corner, Sandigo called living in a free country a “blessing” and professed an idealist’s belief in the American dream — a dream she believes is being denied to many of her growing brood.

Sandigo looked around the room, part of an extension to the house that was built when she thought she’d have more kids of her own.

“And now I have too many,” she said. “But it’s a blessing.”

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