Human & Machine

Nora Sándigo, the Great Mother

Protecting over a thousand migrant children from family separation.
Frances Marcellin

In 1979, when Nora Sándigo was 14, her world turned upside down. As the Nicaraguan Revolution ripped through the country and into her community, her father sent her to safety at her sister’s home in Venezuela. She then applied for political asylum in the United States, along with thousands of other Nicaraguans, as tens of thousands died in the conflict back home.

That year the ruling Somoza dynasty fell in Nicaragua, but soon a guerrilla war erupted against the new pro-Communist government.

Sándigo never saw her father again, even when he was dying.

“He thought if I went back that I would die because the Communists were killing a lot of people, a lot of young students,” she says, when we talk over the phone. “I didn’t have a choice, so I just stayed here.”

By that time it was 1988 and she had settled in Miami, which had become home to around 100,000 Nicaraguan immigrants. She worked for an organization that helped immigrants with political asylum and legal issues. She stayed there until she had enough experience to open her own organization, the American Fraternity Community Services, now better known as the Nora Sandigo Children Foundation.

One of her main goals was lobbying for a law that would protect eligible Nicaraguans (as well as Cubans, Guatemalans, Salvadorans, and Eastern Europeans) with permanent residency. Her efforts were rewarded when the Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act (NACARA) was passed in 1997.

Then, in 2009, something happened that would change her life again.

“I kept working with immigrants, and one day I received two kids in my office,” she explains. Twelve-year-old Cesia and her ten-year-old brother Ronald had been waiting for her. “She came to me because their mother was taken to the immigration office that morning, and her father was running, trying to escape immigration because they wanted to keep him too.”

While both parents are Nicaraguan, the children were born in the States and are American citizens—they are officially a “mixed status family.” The next day the children asked her to sign a power of attorney form, which allows parents to sign over personal, health, and educational decision-making to a legal guardian.

Sándigo explained the situation to her husband and two (now grown-up) daughters, and the children started to live with them. A few years later, their father got deported too, and Sándigo ended up adopting Cesia and Ronald so they could continue their lives and education in America. “Cesia is a lawyer now,” she says warmly. “We’re so proud.”

Of course, Sándigo doesn’t adopt all the children she holds power of attorney for, and when I ask how many that is, she says that it is 1,503 (she knows exactly, off the top off her head). That’s 1,503 American-born children who, if the worst happens, won’t become forever separated from their deported parents and fostered or adopted through the public system.

“It is a blessing for me, a privilege,” she says with strength and sincerity. “It is so hard to see the parents give the power of attorney of the most beautiful thing that they have in their life. We do our best to protect them from the government, from the authorities, and from the laws.”

Deported parents face a difficult choice. They must either take their children to a country they do not know, whose language they may not speak, and where they will likely be in danger, or leave them behind in the United States, dividing the family. Another problem is that while the U.S. government pays for deported parents to return, American-born children are not forced to leave—so their travel costs fall to the deportees, who can usually not afford to pay. 

“Every time we receive a new child, it’s painful, because we notice how painful it is for the father, the mother . . . it’s like everything is broken inside of them, and also inside of us to see what they are doing,” she says. “It’s just because they have no choice. They need to protect them, and they try their best. It is hard.”

Obviously, most of the children that Sándigo holds power of attorney for do not live with her. Many of them stay with extended family, and some of them with their undocumented parents in the U.S. If the parent who's deported is the family's major breadwinner, then any young child left behind is particularly vulnerable.

“In families where the father is in detention, or waiting to be deported, and where the father was the provider, and the mother is pregnant, or she can’t go to work because the kids are so young, or she is also undocumented,” Sándigo explains, “in that situation we need to provide them with the most basic needs.”

For hundreds of families, Sándigo’s far-reaching service provides life-saving care, made possible with her 600-strong army of volunteers.

The foundation holds two events a month in which the families of U.S.-born children receive bags of food (purchased through donors or through Sándigo’s personal contributions). Usually around 100 families and 400 children attend each event.

“If we’re giving food to 100 families, we need to buy 100 gallons of milk, 100 bags of rice, 100 pieces of chicken, 100 cans of beans, 100 packets of cereal, 100 cartons of juice,” she says. “We complete a box with the food, as well as paper towels and soap to wash the dishes and their clothes—simple things. What we need for our house, they will need for theirs.”

The foundation operates as a result of the love and dedication of its volunteers, but it is in need of grants to create a secure income for food purchasing. On average the team spends $40,000 each month on food to provide for the number of children that Sándigo takes care of. They also need grants to employ at least two people who can coordinate all the administrative work. When resources are scarce, Sándigo distributes the donated bags alone.

Sándigo tells me that she manages to keep going because of the support of her family. “My husband is always around, he tries to do the administration to give me freedom to work directly with the children.”

Because of the power of attorney, much of the one-on-one responsibility falls on Sándigo. She never knows when she might have to drop everything to go and help a family.

She tells me that last Saturday, she took three children to a detention center to visit their father, who is due to be deported. “He never did anything wrong, just worked, the kids were crying and wanted to see dad, but the mother is not able to go to the detention center because she is not with her documents,” she says.

“It is painful, horrible, and something we need to talk about a lot with the children, with his wife, and then many times we need to go to the psychologist with the children,” she says, adding that she takes them to a hospital where volunteer psychologists volunteer to provide the mental health support that the families need.

President Donald Trump’s anti-illegal-immigration rhetoric, which described them as drug traffickers, rapists, murderers, thieves, and even animals, has made life more stressful for immigrants. In fact, Sándigo believes that the biggest problem coming out of Trump’s administration isn’t increased numbers of deportations, but the psychological impact.

But how different are circumstances now for immigrants since the Trump administration came into power? According to Pew research, while President Barack Obama was in power, about three million immigrants were deported between 2009 and 2016. Sándigo says that although we’re only midterm, we’re currently “nowhere near those numbers.”

ICE statistics report 226,119 deportations in 2017 and 240,255 in 2016, compared with 235,413 in 2015, 414,481 in 2014, 368,644 in 2013 and 409,849 in 2012, during the final term of the Obama administration.

“Politicians are almost the same, it doesn’t matter Republican or Democrat—Obama promised that he would give protection to the immigrant community, but it didn’t happen,” she says.

She explains that the constant anti-immigrant news takes its toll on the families, the children especially, with high levels of anxiety caused by believing they could be deported next.

“The deportations are always there, but they’re not exactly like they were with Obama administration,” she says. “They were deported quietly, now it’s very loudly.”

According to the Center for Migration Studies (CMS), the number of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. has decreased by one million since 2010, and is now at around 10.7 million. While this hints at progress overall—rather than the "national emergency" that Trump has sought—Sándigo's lifeline services of sustenance, psychological support, mother love, and a lifetime of loyalty still require expansion if they are to continue to help effectively.

Sándigo tells me that she needs two things. The first is to convince the government that what her group is doing is humanitarian work. “We need the government to understand that these people are good people, who need to live a life,” she says. “They give so much to this country and need to be stable to keep supporting their families, and that is for the well-being of everyone and the future of our kids.”

The second, she says, is money to buy a house where she can look after the children who need the most care. Currently some of the children whom Sándigo has legal guardianship of are living with a family member in dangerous conditions in Homestead, a city in south Miami. The foundation is looking at properties of around four to seven acres in the city, particularly near Krome Avenue or the West Kendall area, which could be a safe place for the children.

The property, which will likely cost in the region of $1 million, would also need an activity building for running events for the children, as well as administrative offices.

Her volunteers tell me that her dream is to live with all of them, so she can take care of them the same way a mother does. It is no wonder, then, that the documentary by Dave LaMattina and Chad Walker about Sándigo's crusade is called The Great Mother. The film made its Florida premiere at the Miami Film Festival on March 4, 2019, and its world premiere at the NYC DOC festival in 2018.

“These are our brothers and sisters, we are family,” she says. “It doesn’t matter which race or color or type of politics. We don’t have any difference, we are just the kids of Jesus’s family, and family should be sacred. We need to think seriously about what we are doing to a community and what will happen with the next generations to come if we keep doing the same thing that we are doing right now."