Miami woman finds herself as legal guardian for more than 800 children

Eli Saslow / The Washington Post

KENDALL, Fla. - The first emergency phone call of the morning is the one that wakes her up, and Nora Sandigo, 48, answers one of the three phones she keeps within reach of her bed. “Hello. How can I help?” she says, because someone is always asking for her help. She gets up, pours herself coffee and takes down notes as she listens. “Sebastian. 12. U.S. citizen,” she writes. “Father deported. Mother detained. Drs appointment today, 2:45.”

“Okay, yes. I can do this,” she says, and soon she is in her minivan, sorting through a notebook that contains her to-do list for the day. She has to prepare lunch for 120 children, deliver school supplies to 13 others, drop five off at schools across greater Miami, help find housing for three, take two to doctor appointments, one to a psychologist and one to visit a parent detained for immigration violations.

“Dios mio,” she says, my God, because these are not just things she hopes to get done but things she needs to get done - things she is in fact legally responsible for doing.

“Every child is a blessing,” reads a sticker posted to the interior of her car, which she bought when she began caring for the U.S. citizen children of deported parents in 2009. But now it is five years and 812 blessings later. “Every child is also a job,” she says, as her cellphone rings again.

Sandigo is Miami’s most popular solution to a growing problem in immigration enforcement affecting what the government refers to as “mixed-status families.” A quarter of people deported from the United States now say they are parents of U.S.-citizen minors, which means more than 100,000 American children lose a parent to deportation each year. A few thousand of those children lose both parents. “Immigration orphans,” is how the government refers to this group.

Many of them leave the country with their parents. Seventeen each day are referred to the U.S. foster-care system. Others seek out new guardians, American citizens such as Sandigo, to protect their legal interests in the United States. For these children, the arrangement means they can stay in the country where they were born and continue to live with relatives or friends who are in the country illegally, without fear of being taken into state custody.

For Sandigo, it means the file cabinets in her small office are now stuffed with birth certificates, baby pictures, social security cards, passports and notarized forms for 812 children living in 14 states, ranging in age from 9 months to 17 years. Only two of the children live with her, and with Sandigo covering some of the costs, the rest stay with friends or relatives. She does this as a volunteer and often at her own expense, not because she considers herself capable of providing a safety net for 812 children but because no one else does it. The federal government doesn’t track what happens to the children of deported parents, and no state or federal officials monitor how many children Sandigo has or how many guardians like her exist in immigrant communities around the country.

Sandigo sees some of the children every week, and others she has met only once, on the day their parents signed the paperwork. “Guardian ad Litem,” the forms are titled, or “Power of Attorney: Care and Custody of Children,” and what follows are four pages of points and sub points detailing her responsibilities.

“A. To participate in decisions regarding the child’s education . . . “

“B. To grant permission and consent to the child participating in any activity . . . “

“C. To make health care decisions . . . “

“D. To generally do and perform all matters and things . . . “

On this day, “all matters and things” requires driving her van to Sam’s Club to pick up a few hundred boxes of juice to distribute to children’s homes; and then on to Home Depot to buy an air conditioner for a sweltering, two-bedroom house where three children are living with a 24-year-old cousin; and then to Party City to get a piñata so she can host a weekend birthday celebration for a 9-year-old whose father was just sent back to Honduras. She raises money through a small charity, American Fraternity, to buy the supplies but ends up paying for most things out of her own savings, built by the nursing-home business she no longer has time to manage. It is dark by the time she returns to her small office in the Miami suburb of Kendall with the familiar feeling that she has forgotten something, or someone. She looks over her to-do list, but every item is crossed off. She checks her phone for messages, but there are none.

She goes into the back room of the office, a converted house with a bedroom she uses as emergency shelter for immigrant families, and begins sorting through her alphabetized files of children. There are volunteer guardians like her in immigrant communities across the United States who are responsible for a few children or even a dozen, but she knows of no one else like her, with 812. “Samantha. Izaithell. Zaraya. Gabriel,” she says, searching through photographs, trying to find the one whose needs she might be forgetting. “Sharon. Nathalia. Ashley from Illinois,” she continues.

She had taken over guardianship for the first two children in 2009 as a favor for a Peruvian friend. The woman had been detained during a neighborhood immigration raid, and her American-born daughters had been referred to foster care. Who better to care for them, the friend had asked, than Sandigo, who had been separated from her own parents at 17 while fleeing war in Nicaragua and then become an activist for immigration reform? “I’m sorry, but I’m not sure I can,” Sandigo told her, thinking first about her own responsibilities: two biological daughters entering their teens, a husband, a business of small nursing homes, a working farm on the border of the Everglades. But then Sandigo went to see the two girls in a group home across the city, where one had started seeing a counselor for depression and the other had begun skipping classes at her new school. “How can we not help?” she asked her husband, and so they signed the paperwork for their first two children, and five years later it has become 810 more.

“La gran madre,” is what some of those children call her. The great mother.

“A hidden anomaly in the system,” is what a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Children and Families calls her, explaining that federal and state authorities usually leave guardianship decisions to parents and don’t monitor guardians unless there is a complaint of abuse or neglect.

“A Band-Aid,” is what Sandigo calls herself. “All I can do is hold back some of the bleeding. There is no way I can give 812 children the love and attention they need, but it has to be me. The system is broken. Nobody else is taking responsibility for them.”

She stays in her office after 10 p.m., pouring herself more coffee, continuing to look through her file cabinets until she finally stumbles into the forgotten item she didn’t know she was looking for. It is an empty juice box now filled with a few dozen napkins and scraps of paper, which parents who were in the country illegally had given her during a barbecue the week before. On each piece of paper is the name of an immigrant parent who might soon be deported, and under each name is a list of the U.S.-citizen children that parent might soon leave behind. “Mixed-status America,” Sandigo says, flipping through the scraps of paper, knowing there are at least 4.5 million such families living in the United States. She pulls a napkin from the middle of the stack and reads a list of five names.

Elena, 14.

Angelica, 11.

Andres, 10.

Martina, 7.

Diana, 2.

At the bottom of the napkin is an address an hour south of Miami, in Homestead, and a short note addressed to Sandigo in hasty cursive. And now, instead of 812 American children, she is thinking about 817.

“Por favor, ayudanos,” the note says. Please, help us.

Late the next morning, Sandigo types the address into her phone and follows directions out of Miami, home in downtown Homestead. She has been to this house before to deliver food and bags of clothes from Goodwill. She knows the mother of these five children. “Lucia,” she says to herself, remembering now, and she knocks on the front door and it swings wide open. The house is empty and the air inside is thick and musty. A bottle of orange soda sticks to a kitchen counter that has been warped by the heat. Through the back window, Sandigo spots Lucia and her children sitting in folding chairs and strollers in the yard, crammed against a brick wall that provides the only shade. She walks outside and greets them.

“You came,” says Lucia Quiev, 36, speaking in Spanish, fanning herself with a small white dish towel.

“Of course,” Sandigo says, squeezing into the shade next to her. She likes to look stylish, with deep-red lipstick, oversized sunglasses and high heels, but now she pulls over a paint bucket and uses it as a seat. She hugs Quiev’s two oldest children and pulls the toddler onto her lap. “The first thing we need to do is get you an air conditioner,” she says. “This kind of heat isn’t safe. Now tell me about the other problems you’re dealing with.”

“To be honest, that list is long,” Quiev says, and she begins sharing a version of the story Sandigo has heard from dozens of Central American families, about crossing on foot into the United States in the mid-1990s with her husband, starting a family and finding work in manual labor. Her husband had done well, learning to pour concrete driveways and making $56,000 one year, enough to send their children to a private Catholic school. Then in 2011, he had been pulled over in the family minivan for driving with an expired license plate, an infraction that set him on the path to deportation and his family on the path to poverty. Quiev had switched the children into public school, fallen behind on rent and sold the minivan to pay the landlord. Now she was babysitting three neighborhood children for $80 a week and receiving food stamps, wondering what to do about her children if she was deported as well.

“It sounds like you need more money to buy food,” Sandigo says, taking out her notebook, beginning to make a list. “Are you running out?”

“Sometimes, yes,” Quiev says.

“You need clothes for the kids, right? Shoes? School supplies? Transportation? Toys? Maybe a summer camp they can go to?”

“Yes. Please. Yes.”

But then Quiev tells Sandigo that what she really worries about are not the things the children need but the children themselves: Elena, the oldest child, her co-parent and English translator; Angelica, 11, with best-in-class certificates for science and math; Andres, 10, in his soccer cleats and buzz cut; Martina, 7, always trying to ride the too-big bicycle donated to her by a charity last Christmas; and Diana, 2, born five months after her father was deported. He tried to re-enter the United States illegally a few weeks before her first birthday, but Border Patrol agents apprehended him in Texas. Quiev has spoken to him over the phone three times in the past six months.

“I could be detained and deported tomorrow, too,” Quiev says, looking at Sandigo, hinting at the reason she first decided to write her children’s names on that napkin. “I have no status here. Where would they go? What would happen to them?”

“We would go with you,” Elena says, interrupting, realizing that it is her future being discussed. “We’re not splitting up.”

“No. You need to stay here,” Quiev says. “You don’t know anything about Guatemala. There’s nothing for you. It’s dangerous. This is a better place.”

“I don’t care. We would go,” Elena says.

Quiev ignores her and looks at Sandigo. “I have nightmares about what could happen to them in foster care,” she says. “I hear it can be bad. Maybe they would get split up.”

“Please stop,” Elena says.

“How would I talk to them?” Quiev says, her voice beginning to break. “These are my kids. How would I know what they are doing?”

“Stop,” Elena says again, and now she gets up and walks across the yard, where she starts kicking a soccer ball against the fence. After her father’s deportation, she became what the Department of Homeland Security sometimes refers to as “familial collateral damage” of U.S. immigration policy. Sixty percent of children demonstrate “adverse behavior changes” after parents are deported, according to a study by the Urban Institute, and for Elena, those changes meant abruptly quitting soccer, withdrawing from friendships and eating less. Most experience “academic distraction,” and for her that meant a grade-point average that plummeted in three consecutive semesters. Some suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, and for Elena - who was in the car when her father was pulled over - that manifested itself in a wave of nausea when she saw a police car parked outside her school. “Do you want to talk about it?” a school counselor had asked. “No,” was all she had told him.

Now she walks back over to her mother and Sandigo. “I’m hungry,” she says, hoping to change the topic.

“Me, too,” Sandigo says. She volunteers to order a pizza, and while the children debate toppings, Sandigo pulls her chair closer to Quiev to finish their conversation. “I can help,” she says, and then she explains to Quiev what they both already know: She can offer a choice for the children beyond moving to Guatemala or relying on state care if their mother is deported. “It takes 10 minutes,” she says, explaining that the guardianship process is simple. Nobody has to go to court. There is no official hearing. The children will stay in her care unless she is deported.

Sandigo tells Quiev that she can sign the forms in a few days during a weekly lunch Sandigo hosts at her house for children of deported parents. The paperwork will be printed and ready. A notary will be on hand. Other parents are likely to sign guardianship forms, too.

“Think about it,” Sandigo says, reminding her again about the lunch. “This is not a small thing.”

“I know,” Quiev says, looking over at her five children, imagining what it would be like to be the legal guardian for none. “I don’t want to, but maybe I have to.”

A few hours before she hosts the lunch, Sandigo and her husband resume the same disagreement they have every few weeks.

About 150 children are on the way to their ranch house, and the place is in disarray. Plastic chairs are stacked high in the living room, two teams of caterers fight for space in the small kitchen, and a goat that got loose from the barn roams the back patio. Cardboard boxes of groceries occupy every inch of floor space, because Sandigo’s goal for the event is not only to feed the children lunch but also to send them home with enough food, laundry detergent and soap to get through until the next weekend, when she plans to host a lunch for them again. She has been awake all night, driving to Wal-Mart at 3 a.m. to buy 100 boxes of cornflakes, and now her mascara is running in the heat. She flips through her to-do list and talks to herself. Who is picking up the Gonzalez family in Miami Beach? Is the cotton-candy maker ready? The balloons inflated? The deck power-washed? The lawn mowed? The sound system tested?

“This is like hosting a wedding every weekend,” her husband says. “How long can we do this? It’s crazy. You know that, right?”

“We have to,” she says, looking down at her list, trying to ignore him.

“Sometimes you have to take a break,” he says. “Slow down.”

“When?” she asks.

He persuades her to take a short walk around the remote borders of their ranch, the closest thing they’ve found to a compromise. He is also from Nicaragua and married her seven years ago, the second marriage for both of them, and he inherited first her two biological daughters, then two Peruvian girls and then all the others, plus a few dogs and a cat also left behind after deportations. “A family of lost causes,” he says. He has become an eager partner in Sandigo’s work even as he worries about what that work is doing to her. He wants her to take a vacation, but she won’t. He wants her to go to bed earlier, so she lies down beside him at 1 a.m. and waits until he falls asleep, so she can pour another coffee and return emails for a few more hours. They say they are spending about $10,000 of their own money each year to buy supplies and risking far more, since lawyers have warned they could be held liable if any of the 812 children are mistreated or neglected by the relatives with whom they are living. That fear keeps Sandigo in the office seven days most weeks, rechecking her files, repeating the children’s names out loud.

The one break she concedes to her husband are these walks on the ranch, 30 minutes without cellphones to wander beneath the palm trees and the sea gulls and the coastal Florida sky that has a way of flattening everything beneath it, setting a life into perspective. Not long ago, she was the 17-year-old who had been separated from her family, sent to the United States on a tourist visa to rely on the random kindnesses of strangers. Her seatmate on the flight offered a free room in Little Havana. The director of a refugee organization helped her apply for asylum and then gave her a job. A distant relative co-signed loan documents so she had enough money to start her business.

“You’re right. This probably is crazy,” she says now, walking with her husband, passing their small barn.

But instead of talking with him about ways she could slow down, she starts listing again the work she hopes to do. She wants to buy an apartment building and turn it into a supervised dorm for children of deported parents. She wants to hire a full-time psychologist. She wants to push the Department of Homeland Security to reconsider whom it deports by prioritizing the interests of American children over blanket enforcement.

She wants, more than anything, to finish redrafting a lawsuit on behalf of 812 children against President Barack Obama, which she first began working on in 2009. The lawsuit alleges that the U.S. government has violated the civil rights of American children and caused them “extreme, grave and irreparable hardship,” ever since Congress reformed immigration priorities in 1996. Before then, U.S. children had the right to permanent residency for their parents who did not have legal status in the United States, so long as those parents had shown good moral character and lived in the country for at least seven years. But Congress worried that the policy had created its own form of amnesty, encouraging immigrants to come and have children to legalize their status. “Anchor babies,” some called them, and so Congress made a switch: Immigration offenders would no longer be guaranteed protection because of their American children.

“We have to get another meeting with the lawyers to build momentum,” Sandigo says now, circling back toward her house. We need a presence in Washington, sponsors in Congress, maybe some kind of rally.”

By the time their walk ends at the patio, her to-do list has grown by seven items and the first children are beginning to arrive for lunch. She greets them at the door and hands each one a bag of party favors - cookies, muffins and a plastic necklace. The boys gather on the basketball court and the girls line up for pink cotton candy. Quiev arrives with her five children, and Sandigo waves her over and hands her drinks and food. In the past few days, Sandigo has already delivered some clothing to her house and sent a crew to install an air-conditioning unit. “Are you doing any better?” Sandigo asks.

“We are getting through the days,” Quiev says. “But I still don’t know what to do.”

The crowd builds until there are 120 children and a few dozen adults. The house is not big enough to contain them all, so the children scatter across the farm. They feed a donkey, ride a rope swing, bash a piñata and challenge each other to races. Nineteen adults gather on the porch, and when Sandigo asks how many are in the country illegally, 18 raise their hands. She asks how many have American children, and every hand but one stays in the air.

“Mixed-status America,” Sandigo says, nodding, and then she lifts a guardianship form above her head so that everyone can see it.

“Some of you have already asked me about this,” she says. “If this is what you want to do, we can sign it now.”

Two families follow her back into the dining room, where a notary is waiting at the table. “Let’s make it fast and painless,” he tells them, pulling a stack of paperwork from a manila folder. Quiev and her children stand at the edge of the room while a woman named Claudia Fonseca sits with her four children next to Sandigo and the notary. She is 32, a hotel cleaning woman in Miami Beach whose husband was deported to Guatemala in 2012. Two of her co-workers were recently detained for immigration violations, and now she worries she will be deported, too.

She writes down her children’s names and ages on the forms: Yardley, 5; Ashley, 6; Shirley, 8, and Kelvin, 15. She hands Sandigo their birth certificates and their Social Security cards to make copies. Then she gives her a small stack of photographs: Ashley burying her ankles in the sand at the beach; Kelvin in a collared shirt posing for his eighth-grade picture.

“They are wonderful,” Sandigo tells her, looking away from the pictures and up at children Nos. 813, 814, 815 and 816.

The three girls sit nearby eating lollipops, looking bored, but Kelvin stands next to his mother and reads over her shoulder. “What is all this about again?” he asks. He will start ninth grade in a few months. His Spanish is rusty and he has never visited Guatemala. “They are just so your life stays the same in case something happens,” his mother tells him. Then the notary starts pointing to places for her to initial and sign.

“I hereby make, constitute and appoint Nora Sandigo . . . “ the form states, and she writes her initials.

“I give the grant of guardianship,” it reads, and she initials again.

“This Power of Attorney shall remain in full force and effect until the children reach the legal age,” and she signs her name one final time.

“Okay. That’s it,” the notary says, and Fonseca hugs Sandigo and returns to the party with four children for whom she is no longer the sole guardian. “Next,” the notary says, but Quiev stays near the wall. “You can come sign now,” he tells her, and she takes a few cautious steps toward the table. Her 2-year-old is in her arms, and three of her other children stand at her side, drinking Pepsi and eating cotton candy. Only Elena, her oldest, isn’t with her, because she didn’t want to watch her mother sign, and now Quiev is having doubts, too. “I’m scared of this,” she says. It had been one thing to write her children’s names on a napkin, but it was another to write them again here, on these forms. She wonders: What if something about signing this paperwork means her children lose their health care? Or worse, their citizenship. “I can’t read English,” she says, and she pushes aside the paperwork and looks instead at Sandigo. She wants to make sure they both understand what’s at stake.

“Diana,” Quiev says, lifting up her 2-year-old.

“Diana,” Sandigo repeats.

“Martina,” Quiev says, reaching down to touch the girl’s head.

“Martina,” Sandigo says.

“Andres,” Quiev says, and they continue in this way until both women have repeated all five children’s names. The notary sits still and watches them. Quiev’s children wander to play in another room. For a moment, there are just two mothers together at the table, trying to reach a decision about the future of five more children in mixed-status America. One of them still has guardianship of five American children. The other now has 816.

“I don’t think I’m ready,” Quiev says, finally. “Can I wait to do this?”

“Of course,” Sandigo says. “You should keep them for as long as you can.”