Originally published by The New York Times
Because she didn’t know what to tell her children, she tried not to tell them anything. When they asked where their father was, she gave flimsy excuses: Yes, he came home last night, but he left while you were still asleep. He’s working late, he’s working early, he just stepped out, he’ll be back soon. “You just missed him,” she found herself repeating.
The strategy worked, for a few days at least, with the youngest three. They were all under 5 and were used to the world going about its strange business without them. But then there was Kelly. She was 8 and sharp-eyed, a good student who preferred English to Spanish and wanted to someday be a doctor, or maybe a gymnast, and who had watched a presidential candidate on television say he wanted to send people back to Mexico, where both her parents grew up.
Kelly came home from school one day in October last year and demanded to know where her father was. Because his construction job started so early in the morning, Javier was usually the first home. That was part of how he and Kelly’s mother, T., fell in love. They boarded in the same house more than a decade ago, when she was 19 and freshly arrived in South Florida, having followed her sister from their small village in southern Mexico. T., who is being identified by her first initial to shield her identity, quit school after sixth grade. She helped her parents plant corn and beans but dreamed of something better for herself and her infant son; she decided to leave him in her mother’s care and support him from afar. Javier was from the same region, and because he finished work early, he cooked for her while she was still out in the Florida sun. The food was delicious and tasted like home. Soon they were a couple, and then Kelly was born, and her father, who fainted with anxiety in the birthing room, adored her, and she adored him back.
“He’s late from work,” T. told her daughter.
But Kelly wasn’t having it. Before heading to school that morning, she saw uniformed men come to the door and ask her mother for her father’s passport; she heard her mother on the phone, asking what had happened, what to do. “Don’t lie to me,” Kelly said, and started to cry. “Where did they take him? What did he do?”
By now T. knew. One of her first phone calls was to an immigrant advocate and former refugee named Nora Sándigo, who, in this poor area south of Miami, was the most powerful person in many people’s worlds: She knew lawyers, county commissioners, even members of Congress. After T. called her, Sándigo quickly discovered that Javier had been detained by the Department of Homeland Security. T. didn’t tell Kelly the details she had learned from Sándigo, or from Javier, when he was finally able to make a brief call. That they arrested him just a few yards away from their home, as he stood waiting for his ride to work. That now he was on the edge of the Everglades, in a gray-and-tan detention center adjacent to a state prison, a half-hour’s drive away, a distance that, for T., had suddenly become unbridgeable. “He was arrested,” she told Kelly, simply. “We have no papers to be here, like you do.”
“Will they take me, too?” Kelly asked. She didn’t know what papers her mother was talking about, what this thing was that she had and her parents didn’t.
T. didn’t tell her daughter the other reason she called Sándigo. Across South Florida, T. knew, undocumented parents of citizen children were preparing for possible deportation by signing power-of-attorney forms that allowed Sándigo to step in should their own parenthood be interrupted by a surprise visit from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. If they were taken away, at least Norita, as they called her, could provide stability while the family sorted out what to do; she could also sign forms on their children’s behalf at school, or at the hospital, or in federal court.
Sándigo’s responsibilities extended to many hundreds of children, and were growing all the time. Parents, some of whom had never met her in person, were desperate for any solution. Her qualifications were simple. She was compassionate. She was willing. And, like their children, she was a United States citizen.
For years, T. never felt the need for such an extreme contingency plan. Now she was thinking of adding her own children to Sándigo’s list. “Imagine if they detained me too,” she said after Javier was gone. She couldn’t envision taking her American children with her to Mexico, where she “wouldn’t be able to give them education, shoes, clothes,” and where they would be separated from their friends and lives and ambitions, from the only home they had ever known. But what would happen if they stayed behind, with no parents left to care for them?
There’s a common misconception that having a citizen child — a so-called anchor baby — allows undocumented parents to gain legal status in the United States. In fact, parents of citizen children are deported annually by the tens of thousands, according to ICE’s own reports to Congress. Randy Capps, a demographer with the Migration Policy Institute, estimates that as many as a quarter of the people deported from the United States interior (who are counted separately from those deported at a border) are the parents of American children. Though immigration law prioritizes family connections, including legal status for the family members of Americans who petition on their behalf, children are the exception. They cannot, by law, petition for anyone until they turn 21 — by which time, of course, they won’t need their parents nearly as much.
Families like Kelly’s are known as “mixed status” — a reminder that the way we talk about immigration, with clear lines of legality separating groups of people, is often a fantasy. The reality is a world of families with separate legal statuses but intertwined fates. More than four million American children are estimated to have a parent in the country illegally. If deported, those parents face a difficult choice: Take their children to a country they do not know, whose language they may not speak and one that lacks the security and opportunities they have in the United States; or leave them behind, dividing the family. Courts have regularly responded to the argument that a parent’s deportation will deny a child, as one lawyer put it, “the right which she has as an American citizen to continue to reside in the United States,” with the counterargument that such children are not, in fact, deprived, because they retain the right to stay in their country and the right to live with their parents — just not both at the same time. “That’s what I call a choiceless choice,” says David B. Thronson, a professor at the Michigan State University College of Law, who helped found the Immigration Law Clinic.
But it’s a choice that’s familiar to millions of families, including Sándigo’s. “I lived that,” she said one day when I met her at her office in the suburbs of Miami, a one-story stucco house that serves as the headquarters of the Nora Sándigo Children Foundation. When she was 16, her parents sent her away from Nicaragua to escape the violence of its civil war; her family, she says, was targeted for opposing the Sandinistas. “I feel like I am one of those kids,” she continued, “because I came with the same problem. I had my father and mother, but I was an orphan without them. Separate from their parents, they become orphans, like me.” She remembers sobbing as she watched the country of her birth recede from the plane window.
When she left Nicaragua, Sándigo went to Venezuela, then France, “trying to get something legal,” and in 1988 finally ended up in the United States, where the organization that helped her settle here offered her a job working with other refugees from Central America and advocating for their asylum. The Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act was passed in 1997. In Miami, she helped other immigrants with paperwork and resettlement matters, like looking for apartments or jobs. She also started a business of small nursing homes, which, along with a plant nursery, helps cover her foundation’s bills. She never went back to Nicaragua, not even when her father was dying. He told her to stay in the United States and be safe. It was her country now, he said.
As Sándigo’s reputation grew, it became common for strangers in Miami’s immigrant communities to seek her out, asking for help; the requests opened Sándigo’s eyes to the depth of people’s need. She remembers bringing six towels to a woman with five children, who was shocked at the abundance: “So many!”
One call, in 2006, was for a new kind of assistance: A Peruvian woman, whom Sándigo had never met, was being held in a detention center, and she wanted to give Sándigo power of attorney to make decisions about her children’s care. (Unlike full legal guardianship, which is conferred by a court, power-of-attorney forms don’t involve a transfer of parental rights.) Others in the center had warned her that if she didn’t do something, she might lose her children to the child welfare system. Sándigo doesn’t know why the woman thought of her, but she felt honored, and obligated, by her trust: “When she called she had the papers signed and notarized already in my name.”
The Peruvian woman’s children never called on Sándigo, but word of what she had done got out. In 2009, a brother and sister, ages 9 and 11, showed up at Sándigo’s door with their uncle; their mother, they said, was in detention, and they weren’t going to eat until she was released. Sándigo remembers the oldest, Cecia, now a student at Georgetown University, saying, “We’ll stay with you,” to which she replied, “But this is an office, baby.” Still, she made a place for them. Jerryann, one of Sándigo’s two biological daughters, recalled: “You were like, ‘Oh, they’re going to stay the night.’ And then one night became forever.” The children moved in — they ended up staying for six years — the case attracted a lot of publicity and soon there was a steady stream of requests. “That gave the perception to the people, probably, that I was accepting the power of attorney from everyone in the same situation,” Sándigo said.
Many of the people who contacted Sándigo wanted only a temporary backup, a documented adult whom their kids could call in the moment of crisis to avoid ending up in the child-welfare system. According to an ICE spokeswoman, “ICE is committed to ensuring that the agency’s immigration-enforcement activities, including detention and removal, do not unnecessarily disrupt the parental rights of alien parents and legal guardians of minor children.” But navigating the immigration and child-welfare systems simultaneously can be difficult. Emily Butera, a senior policy adviser at the Women’s Refugee Commission, told me that many parents have come to believe that they will lose their rights automatically: “We’ve started explicitly saying to people, ‘Your children are not the property of the U.S. government.’ ”
Other parents planned for their children to stay with their undocumented friends or relatives, but wanted Sándigo to sign papers or fill official roles that they couldn’t. Still others hoped that their children would live with her, maybe for the remainder of their childhoods — something Sándigo wasn’t promising and worried that people assumed she was. But still, she never said no. When people came to her looking for help, Sándigo found it impossible to deny them. The numbers grew into the dozens, and then to the hundreds. “We never planned this,” Sándigo said one day. “It was planned by nobody. It just came.”
After the election of President Trump, who proposed a border wall and tighter enforcement of immigration law, more families than ever began asking for Sándigo’s help. Some parents wanted her to be their child’s backup guardian, while others simply wanted advice or help understanding what they called la carta poder — the power letter. “Hello Señora,” one message read in unpunctuated, hurried Spanish. “I live in North Carolina and I live in fear and stress what do I do I have three children and I don’t go out and my husband does what can we do.” Sándigo, now 52, tried to keep up with all the new requests for help and advice but shook her head at how often she failed. Several times, I saw her taking two calls at once, a cellphone held to each ear.
In April, a volunteer updated Sándigo’s spreadsheet of names and, before she had finished, showed Sándigo a number that made her quail. “We are now at 1,089!” she gasped — more than a thousand kids who might call her at any moment to say that their parents were gone and they needed help figuring out what to do. “I don’t want to say that,” Sándigo said. “It’s too much! Too many kids, in the last few months with Mr. Trump. The increase is incredible.” The latest count is 1,252.
Sándigo’s office is decorated with American and Nicaraguan flags and pictures of her — in neat makeup, her long auburn hair worn loose — meeting various politicians. Beyond the public spaces are two emergency bedrooms, their shelves filled with picture books and SAT prep guides, and a hallway stacked with beans and rice and diapers and condensed milk.
The filing cabinets in her office are filled with photos and birth certificates and power-of-attorney letters. She opened one drawer of one cabinet and began flipping through folders of families, some of whom she still knew and some she’d never met and had only heard from once, in the form of a packet of documents and a note asking for help in case something happened. “If they call me,” she said, “I will go immediately.” Responsibilities looked back at her: a toddler asleep on a Looney Tunes pillow; an 11-year-old girl in a headband sitting up rod-straight; a chubby boy in a yellow baseball uniform. She pointed to a name in a folder marked “Ramírez,” with a Post-it note on the outside: “madre deportada (2007).” The boy, she said, stayed in the country with his father. He was now an adult and a professional, and after 10 years his mother was able to return.
The chance that many of these children would need her help all at once seemed higher now. In the past, it was unusual for ICE to deport both parents of a child — fathers were more common — but the immigrants Sándigo knew feared that the rules were changing. The same month that ICE reported that its arrest of noncriminals had doubled under the new administration, a mother of four with no criminal record — someone who in previous years wouldn’t have been a priority for enforcement — was deported from Ohio. Sándigo saw the possible future of her charges. She estimates that perhaps a third of the children on her list have already had at least one parent deported. What if there were a sudden wave of children who needed her?
“That could happen anytime,” Sándigo’s husband, Reymundo Otero, told her one day. “It’s for real, you know.”
Sándigo did know. “I don’t have enough time or resources even for the first hundred kids,” Sándigo said. “Even for the first 10!”
It was dark when Sándigo pulled up to a small house where Kelly’s mother and seven other parents were waiting under a carport with their children. She was running late, as usual; she’d had to wait at the office for a donor. Kelly’s mother told her that a number of parents, who got up early to work before the sun became too hot, had already left.
Sándigo began pulling donated clothes out of her minivan. With Sándigo was one of her wards, 16-year-old Ritibh, who was helping unload groceries. He was born in Washington State, but his parents were deported to India when he was 9. They were caught, he said, at a checkpoint while driving him to Disneyland. Though he had moved to India with them, he dreamed of finishing high school in the United States and going to the Naval Academy, so he contacted Sándigo on Facebook and asked her to take him in. He was sure she’d say no, that her famous helpfulness must be a scam. He had now been living with her for nearly eight months, and they had developed an easy rapport; he likes to help with family-support work, which often keeps them up late into the night. That evening, fueled by sugary coffee, they had rushed through a discount grocery store, piling cart after cart with staples. At the checkout, Ritibh practiced his Spanish with the cashier, listing what they had bought: 50 cucumbers, 20 bags of onions, six 20-packs of chicken legs, 20 gallons of milk, 20 loaves of bread and so on. “And one bag of hot Cheetos for myself,” he added.
Ritibh kicked a soccer ball with some of the kids as Sándigo caught up with their parents. She wasn’t sure, when I asked her, which of the parents had actually entrusted her with their children’s care; she would have to check her files. It didn’t really matter, she said. The power-of-attorney forms were about the future, and most days it was all she could do to focus on more pressing needs. Kelly’s mother confided that she’d been fired from her job the week before, after reporting her supervisor to the police for physical assault. She didn’t know how she was going to take care of the kids.
While she talked, one of her daughters climbed into Sándigo’s lap. Kelly snuggled with a stuffed bear that she’d pulled off the donation table. “You’re on the floor!” Sándigo said, in English. “On a bear!” But Kelly just looked up at her silently.
Ever since her husband was detained, T. explained, Kelly had had no energy, no desire to eat. Before, she loved school and did her homework without being asked. But after the detention, she lay motionless on the couch. She didn’t want to sleep; when she did sleep, she couldn’t make herself get up. Within a week, her teacher called T. to ask what was wrong, saying that Kelly was “not the same student.” She was always distracted, either staring at her fingernails or chewing on them. “It’s like she’s not there,” the teacher said. When T. tried to make Kelly eat, she would cry and refuse. She had lost five pounds — a lot when you’re supposed to be growing and you weigh only 45 pounds to begin with.
T. was sure Kelly was sick. She took her to a pediatrician, but there was nothing physically wrong. “Why have you changed so much?” she begged her child one day as they sat at the round wooden table squeezed between the couch and the kitchen, which she’d painted teal and pink in an effort at cheerfulness. “Did something happen to you? Was it at school? Trust me, tell me.”
“I want my dad,” Kelly answered. “I need him with me. Why did they take him?”
T. hadn’t considered that her husband’s absence alone could change her daughter so profoundly. It was hard on everyone, of course; even the younger kids had caught on enough to say, “Mami, they’re going to take you too!” whenever they saw a police car. T. couldn’t visit Javier in detention — “I couldn’t go and put myself in the mouth of the wolf!” — but his children, as citizens, went twice with family friends. When T. asked them how it went, Kelly refused to say a word. Ana, who was 5 and the next oldest, said: “Kelly cried, my little sister cried, I cried a little. He’s wearing orange pants and a shirt. My papi cried, too.” When it was time to go, the woman who accompanied them had to drag the girls away.
Luis H. Zayas, a psychologist and the dean of the University of Texas at Austin School of Social Work, has examined many citizen children of undocumented parents, whom he refers to as “forgotten citizens,” a new generation of American exiles and orphans. The first to arouse his interest in the issue hadn’t spoken at school in some 15 months, so great was her fear of revealing her parents’ status. He calls what he sees “psychological erosion”: clinical levels of depression, separation anxiety and low self-esteem. As Joanna Dreby, a sociologist at the University at Albany, writes, even “the threat of deportability” can be devastating, plunging children into a state of constant dread and hypervigilance.
T. herself was afraid. Driving was a huge risk given that she had no license and that a misdemeanor could get her deported (“If you go out to work, you risk everything,” she said), but she began taking Kelly across the county twice a week to see a psychologist. She didn’t know what else to do for her daughter. “For her — her world, I don’t know, it ended.”
By the time Ritibh and Sándigo finished handing out supplies, it was 11 p.m., but Sándigo didn’t go to sleep. Late nights and early mornings are her time for writing, for trying to think strategically. For years, she had been pushing the county to provide crisis housing for kids she calls “the orphans of immigration,” and a Miami-Dade County commissioner recently agreed to help. Sándigo was now trying to raise money for a dorm-style building, but she worried that it wouldn’t be ready quickly enough. To speed things up, she was looking into trailers. If it came to it, she said, there was always her own house and office. “Maybe we will be sleeping like, how do you say, perros calientes?” Like hot dogs.
Before Trump was elected, Sándigo dreamed of a political solution for her young charges that went far beyond housing. In April 2016, she took some of them, including T. and her daughters, to Washington to advocate for an Obama order known as Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA), a kind of sister action to Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) that would have allowed parents to apply for work permits and temporary protection from deportation in order to care for their kids. Thanks to a lawsuit and a split Supreme Court, DAPA never went into effect, and this June the Trump administration officially rescinded it.
In United States family law, “the best interests of the child” is a widely accepted standard. Judges are required to use it in every state when deciding custody cases, and dozens of states explicitly list the maintenance of family unity or family emotional ties as primary components of “best interests.” Immigration law is the exception. Children affected by their parents’ immigration cases “have no opportunity for their best interests to be considered,” writes Bridgette A. Carr, founding director of the University of Michigan Law School’s Human Trafficking Clinic. The closest option, before 1996, was that immigrants living in the United States for at least seven years could petition to cancel their removal on the grounds that it would cause “extreme hardship” for themselves, their children or other qualifying relatives. Acceptable reasons included war in the home country or serious medical needs. Hardships like being separated from your parents or having to leave your country usually didn’t count, explains Thronson, of the Immigration Law Clinic, because “that always happens in deportation — that’s just your starting point.”
In the immigration overhaul of the mid-1990s, Congress made the standard even harder to meet, changing “extreme hardship” to “exceptional and extremely unusual hardship” and imposing a limit of 4,000 cases a year. Alfonso Oviedo-Reyes, a lawyer who works with Sándigo, says he’s lucky if one client qualifies a year. “They should have said a nearly impossible hardship,” he said. “No one can withstand it!”
“Generally speaking, under the law,” says Donald L. Schlemmer, an attorney specializing in immigration law, “if there’s some kind of wrong, there should be some kind of remedy — or at least you should have your day in court.” But the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, the same 1996 law that raised the standard for deportation relief, made it much more difficult to use class-action lawsuits to challenge immigration policies. When Sándigo tried filing a lawsuit in federal circuit court in 2007, on which Schlemmer worked, they were told that only the Supreme Court had jurisdiction to hear such cases; when she brought the case to the Supreme Court, the clerk replied with a letter explaining that there was no jurisdiction there either. Oviedo-Reyes says that letter is their chance: proof that citizen children, unconstitutionally, have nowhere to go for redress.
Since Trump’s election, Sándigo has been combing through her list of children to see which would be good candidates for a class-action lawsuit — something that might lead to the kind of law that helped the Central American refugees she worked with. She wants the suit to reflect the variety of children’s experiences: some with both parents gone, some with one, some simply afraid of losing either. She put Ritibh’s name on her list; he was so gregarious and happy to tell his story. (“I have the tunnels under the Congress memorized,” he told me.) She also added Valerie, 17, and Matthew, 15, a sister and brother born and raised in Fort Lauderdale whose undocumented parents took them to their home country, Colombia. Once there, they were threatened by people attempting to extort the family, with its American ties. Their mother contacted Sándigo on Facebook, asking her to take the children in. “She explained that if I don’t do anything her kids would be kidnapped or dead,” Sándigo says.
Valerie was counting on being reunited with her parents through DAPA. When it failed, she says, “all my hopes went down. I just started to cry. It was bad.” Like other children in her situation, she has only one legal avenue: wait until she’s not a child anymore, and then, when she has fewer needs but more rights, try to sponsor her parents for green cards. To get her parents back, Valerie says, “I have to wait until I’m 21.”
On a Sunday in June, T. took her children to Sándigo’s office to sign papers. Some were permission forms; Sándigo was about to take the kids on another advocacy trip to Washington. The other papers were power-of-attorney forms. T. had decided she was ready to sign.
A notary arrived, and T. sat down next to him at Sándigo’s desk. “Tu nombre y appellido?” he asked her, and she spelled her name. Kelly, in jeans and a glittery T-shirt, leaned on her mother’s shoulders, peering at the papers she was signing. Soon, though, she lost interest, and climbed into an armchair on top of her cousin Karina, also 8. “The government is not respecting their rights,” Karina’s mother said, as the girls snuggled together watching a YouTube video. No one mentioned it, but it was Father’s Day.
Kelly was more animated than she had been a few months before. The psychologist had played games with her and explained, as Kelly put it: “I need to get better so I can have more energy. I need to eat food so I can’t be dead.” But what helped the most, T. thought, was when Javier was released from detention to return to Mexico. From there, he could at least talk to her on the phone every day.
Still, things were hardly back to normal; Kelly had just failed the school year. She looked over at her mother signing the papers. “Each day I get sadder and sadder,” she said quietly. “But I don’t want to tell my mom because she could get worried about me.”
The notary stamped the paper that showed how worried her mother already was. “Quién falta?” he asked, looking around. “Who’s next?”
Another family stepped forward: a couple and their three American sons, ages 3, 10 and 11. The youngest was wearing a Mickey Mouse hat. They drove from Broward County after learning on a local news segment the day before about Sándigo and her willingness to serve as a guardian. Though they didn’t need Sándigo’s help financially, they were thrilled to have an emergency plan to offer their sons: Before, “we just told them not to answer the door when they came and knocked,” the mother said. “I don’t know the truth — how scared they are,” the father said. “I imagine they are.”
The family took their turn with the notary, then stuck around to eat cake and sing “Happy Birthday” to Matthew, who was turning 15 that day, far from his parents. “It’s already my second birthday without them,” he said. He misses them the most, he said, when he scores a goal at a soccer game. “He sees friends with their parents, all the social media posts with parents,” explained Valerie, in braces and pastel-blue fingernail polish. “Sometimes he asks me, ‘Why can’t we be with them?’ And I’m like, ‘I don’t know, you’re asking the wrong person.’ ”
Valerie’s phone rang; it was their mother, asking how the birthday was going. Valerie estimated it was the 10th call of the day from her. During the school year, the first ring always comes at 6 a.m., a long-distance version of the wake-ups that used to happen in person.
Two days later, nine adults and 36 children gathered at Sándigo’s house to pack into three rented vans for the 18-hour drive to Washington. T. tried to find space under a seat for a stroller — she was bringing all four daughters — while Sándigo stood in front of local news cameras, speaking in Spanish. “How can they be American citizens if in their own country they’re treated so harshly?” she asked. Kelly wandered into the frame, and Sándigo pointed to her: “Her father was deported,” she said. “It’s very hard.” Kelly noticed the cameras turning to her and darted away. “We hope they’ll listen to these American children,” T.’s sister told Telemundo.
Finally, space was found for all the diaper bags and suitcases and gallons of frozen milk. The kids lined up for a group photo around an American flag. The plan was to drive through the night, a challenge with so few licensable drivers among the adults. The vans pulled out past a small lineup of news cameras.
A few minutes later, they were back. Sándigo had gotten a call from the only English-language station to respond to her news release: The cameraman was running late. Sándigo agreed to redo the exit scene. “For us, the English news is the most important,” she said. Its viewers were the ones whom she most wanted to hear from the children, their fellow citizens.
Kelly and the others dutifully spilled out of the van into the sunshine. Valerie, in her native, teenage English, told the new camera the same things she’d told the others in Spanish: about missing her parents, about how hard it was. She was proud that she’d finally learned to talk about them without crying.
Then the children all climbed back inside for another try at reaching their nation’s capital.
The cameraman stood in the empty street for a long time, watching them disappear.