'Mama warrior' helps children of immigrants

Immigration activist Nora Sandigo has accepted responsibility for 1,250 children of immigrants living in the United States illegally. Hundreds of parents have signed power of attorney documents giving her the ability to care for their children if they are detained or deported. 

Wilfredo Lee/AP
Immigration activist Nora Sandigo (l.) smiles at Ritibh Kumar, one of the 1,250 children she has accepted responsibility for if their parents are detained or deported.

The 29-year-old Mexican farmworker was stressed and afraid. Her husband had just been detained by immigration authorities as he left a South Florida construction site and was about to be deported. She feared the same would soon happen to her. What would become of her two kids?

So she called Nora Sandigo, an immigration activist who has accepted responsibility for 1,250 children, becoming an essential part of emergency planning for people who are in the United States illegally and now face an increasing prospect of being caught amid a crackdown under President Trump.

"Don't worry," Ms. Sandigo told her on a recent morning. "Come see me tomorrow."

Hundreds of immigrant parents have signed a document known as a power of attorney that enables Sandigo to care for their children if they are detained, at which point it might be too late to make such an arrangement.

"People are desperate to do this to protect their kids," she said after hanging up with the woman from Mexico. "Once they are detained there's very little that can be done for them."

The power of attorney allows Sandigo to sign documents on behalf of children at schools, hospitals, and court. She can help the minors pursue legal residency if they are not citizens or travel abroad to be reunited with their families.

At least once a week, Sandigo, a mother of two daughters, drives south to the city of Homestead, Fla., and drops off donated clothing and food for some of them, mostly people from Mexico and Central America who work on nearby farms.

Every two weeks, many of the families gather at her home on the rural southern fringe of Miami. Sometimes several hundred show up.

She hands out donated supplies to the adults while the kids play with a menagerie of animals on the 5-acre property, including ponies, a goat, pigs, and a peacock.

Most of the kids still live with at least one parent, and in the end she may never have to take care of most of them.

Sandigo, a deeply religious woman who makes frequent references to God and Jesus, gets more involved if the parents are detained or deported. In December, she accompanied an 8-year-old Mexican girl to the hospital because the child couldn't sleep, eat, or stop crying after her father was detained and went with another child to an asylum hearing in downtown Miami.

Two kids from Nicaragua, whose parents were forced to leave the US, lived with her for two years. One now attends Georgetown University and the other lives with an uncle and plans to join the Army.

A 16-year-old from India has been living with her since September 2016, getting an education at a local public school that his parents felt he couldn't get back in his homeland. Sandigo refers to the boy, Ritibh Kumar, as "my lovely son."

Ritibh, who is tall and athletic and has lived in the US most of his life, said Sandigo checks his homework and watches him play tight end on his school's football team.

"She is my No. 1 fan," he said. "This is my second home, my second mother."

Before Lucia Ambruno was forced to return to Colombia, she placed her two children in Sandigo's care after hearing media reports about the foundation. The two teens lived with her in Kendall, Fla., for several months until they were able to move in with family friends in another part of the US.

"She inspires a lot confidence, a lot of love," Ms. Ambruno said of Sandigo. "I trusted her with my little ones and she didn't let me down."

Sandigo can relate to the immigrants she helps. She fled Nicaragua as a teen, leaving her own parents behind, after the socialist Sandinista government confiscated her family's farm. During the 1980s, she provided the US-backed Contra insurgents with clothes and other supplies and later spirited her brother out of the country at age 16 before he could be drafted into the military.

She became a US citizen in 1996 and became active in immigration issues, helping fellow refugees from Nicaragua. Sandigo has since become well known for broader efforts, which include filing a lawsuit last week against the Trump administration on behalf of children with citizenship whose parents have been deported.

"Nora has proven that she has a deep, caring heart and is committed to giving many immigrant kids a good start in life," said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a South Florida Republican.

The first time Sandigo signed a power of attorney to help someone being deported was in 2006, when a woman from Peru needed help getting a young child back to the South American country.

"I'm a mama warrior, ready to protect children and their parents," she said.

Money for the effort comes from donations to the Nora Sandigo Children Foundation or from the businesses she runs with her husband, which include a plant nursery and an elderly care home. Some lawyers also offer voluntary help.

Sandigo has been setting up agreements with migrant parents for nearly a decade, but over the past 12 months the number of new ones has grown nearly 40 percent. She gets barraged with email, Facebook messages, and phone calls from interested parents.

More than 110,500 immigrants were detained on suspicion of being in US illegally in the first nine months under Mr. Trump, a 42 percent increase over a year earlier, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The administration has also ended programs that spared some categories of immigrants from deportation, including people from countries devastated by natural disaster such as Haiti and El Salvador.

The power of attorney forms don't confer full legal guardianship or transfer parental rights. No court order is required. State and local officials don't get involved unless there are allegations of fraud or abuse, in which case a judge can be asked to void the agreement. Similar arrangements are often used by elderly people who want someone to look out for their interests.

Others provide this service for immigrants around the US, though immigration experts say they know of no one who has done it to the extent of Sandigo.

For the Mexican woman who called Sandigo on a recent morning, it's a way to make sure her kids have someone to call and take care of them if she is suddenly arrested, someone who could send them to her in San Luis Potosi in Mexico.

The woman showed up at Sandigo's house the following evening with her 2-year-old son after her eight-hour shift picking squash near Homestead, leaving her 11-year-old daughter with a neighbor. The woman, who asked that she be identified only by her first name, Lucia, said the drive was tense because she was afraid she would be pulled over and turned over to immigration.

Sandigo, who seems to always have a cup of coffee in her hand, embraced Lucia as if they had known each other for years. The boy headed off to play with a ball while they sat down to talk in the living room. Lucia said her husband crossed the border in 2006 and she followed the next year. Now, they fear their time in the US is coming to an end. The husband was detained as he came back from a construction job near Miami.

She had heard of Sandigo through the immigrant grapevine.

"She's a good person and that's why I'm going to her for help," Lucia said, still in tears after talking about what happened to her husband.

Sandigo tries to offer comfort, but as the woman drives away into the night, Sandigo says there is only so much reassurance she can give.

"People are afraid, knowing that at any moment there's a possibility that their family can be destroyed," she said.

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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