KENDALL — 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 on 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.
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."
On this day, she is 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 pinata 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.
"La gran madre," is what some of those children call her. The great mother.
"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."