The recent increase in the number of unaccompanied, undocumented minors immigrating across the border has left tens of thousands of children waiting in limbo. But thousands of children who are already American citizens also face an uncertain future — because their parents are not in the country legally.
If their parents get deported, those minors could end up in foster care, or adopted by strangers.
Nora Sandigo is the legal guardian of 817 American children of undocumented immigrants. Should a parent be deported, Sandigo steps in to arrange care for the children they leave behind. In many cases she cares for the children herself, temporarily. Eventually, they are placed with family or family friends who receive background screenings and get support from Sandigo as needed.
She receives no support from federal or state government; in addition to her own money, Sandigo draws on volunteers, donors and churches in the community to help care for the children.
Through an interpreter, Sandigo tells NPR's Arun Rath that one of the hardest parts of caring for the children is providing moral support.
"That is the part that breaks our heart, but we know that we have to be there for them and be strong," she says. "We have to lift their spirits and tell them, 'Everything will be OK, one day you'll be reunited, one day you'll have justice and everything will be resolved. Meanwhile, study hard in school to make your parents proud.'
"The children have problems focusing in school. They have problems sleeping; they don't want to interact with other people or talk to other people about what's going on. It is easier for them to talk to me because they trust me with their problems. This is important not just for society, but for America's future — to raise good kids, not kids with problems due to the fact that no one forms a connection with them."
ARUN RATH, HOST:
While attention in Washington stays fixed on the Texas border where tens of thousands of migrant children wait in limbo, thousands more children living in America who are legal citizens also face an uncertain future because their parents are not here legally. And if their parents get deported, the kids could end up in foster care or even adopted by strangers.
NORA SANDIGO: (Through translator) I'm aware that what I'm doing is just like a grain of sand. The problem is huge. It's a problem that the federal government needs to fix. I can only do what I can do as one person with my own human limitations. And I am just one person.
RATH: Nora Sandigo is the legal guardian for 817 American children of undocumented immigrants who have nowhere else to turn. She spoke with me from her office in Miami, through an interpreter, this week. Nora Sandigo is our Sunday Conversation.
SANDIGO: (Through translator) For a lot of those kids, if their parents don't prepare documents before being deported, it's possible that one day there's no one to pick their child up from daycare or school because Immigration deported their parents - because if they are deported, and it happened suddenly, what will happen is that the government will take custody of the kids. Their real parents don't want this. They don't want to lose their children. They love them.
RATH: Now you're not physically caring for 817 children, right?
SANDIGO: (Through translator) For many of them, I am. There have been many moments in which the child's father is detained and the mother has already been deported, and I've kept the children with me temporarily. And then they go to live with a family member or a family friend. The person that they live with gets a background screening, and that's the person that cares for them.
RATH: And for the others, where are they? Are they all in Florida, and who takes care of them?
SANDIGO: (Through translator) They're in different places, but they do have people taking care of them - either a family member or one of the parents that is still in the United States. And we also take care of the essential things they need. We support them when a mother has five children, and she cannot work because of her illegal status. And she cannot leave her children alone because the government can take them away. Well, we make sure that she has a roof over her head and food and school supplies or moral support.
RATH: Is there anybody - any authority - who could say that there's a limit to how many children because - that would say, you know, you can't be a legal guardian for over 800 kids?
SANDIGO: (Through translator) No. What I do is public, and they can't take the authority away from parents to give me custody of their children. Legally, they can't do anything because they don't give me anything. I don't ask for anything.
RATH: And is there any support from federal or state government?
SANDIGO: Absolutely not - not at all.
RATH: Nora, how much do you have to pay out of your own pocket to help care for these kids?
SANDIGO: (Through translator) I don't think about it anymore. Everything that we can give, we give. We have never asked ourselves how much. There are people who come as volunteers and bring food. There are churches and business people that come, too, and give us what we need.
RATH: And what about emotional support, you know, dealing with a child's fear of being separated from their parents?
SANDIGO: (Through translator) That is the part that breaks our hearts, but we know that we have to be there for them and be strong. We have to lift their spirits and tell them everything will be OK. One day you'll be reunited. One day you'll have justice, and everything will be resolved. Meanwhile, study hard in school to make your parents proud.
The children have problems focusing in school. They have problems sleeping. They don't want to interact with other people or talk to other people about what's going on. It's easier for them to talk to me because they trust me with their problems. This is important, not just for society, but for America's future - to raise good kids, not kids with problems due to the fact that no one forms a connection with them.
RATH: Do you feel like the parents of these children have put them in a bad situation?
SANDIGO: No. They love their kids, and the kids love their parents or their family. And they want to stay here because they are American citizens.
RATH: I saw that you had described what you're doing as being like a Band-Aid. Could you explain?
SANDIGO: (Through translator) Yes. Sadly, that's how it is. I'm aware that what I'm doing is just like a grain of sand. The problem is huge. It's a problem that the federal government needs to fix. I can only do what I can do with my own human limitations. I am just one person.
RATH: I understand that you were, yourself, separated from your parents at 17, fleeing the war in Nicaragua. And I'm curious about your perspective on the children who are now coming across the border from Central America.
SANDIGO: (Through translator) I also had to leave my country because of the violence, because of communism and because the communists assassinated many people in my family and among my friends. I understand that the kids who are arriving now - many of these children are fleeing the violence and the social disorder in their countries. I think that they should have the same opportunities that all human beings are afforded.
RATH: Nora Sandigo, thank you very much.
SANDIGO: (Spanish spoken) Thank you very much for everything. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.