Weekend Read: For mixed-status families, a “choiceless choice”

Nora Sándigo has more presents stashed in a spare bedroom than her children could possibly open. They are stacked on top of each other, some wrapped, some in cardboard boxes, some in plastic tubs and trash bags. They touch the ceiling.

The presents are not for Christmas morning. Sándigo keeps them for the more than 1,000 children who are counting on her to become their guardian if their undocumented parents are deported.

She is, as Brooke Jarvis writes for The New York Times, “the most powerful person in many people’s worlds.”

Sándigo has the power of attorney for 1,252 children — American citizens — who will look to her to take care of questions at school, the hospital or in federal court if Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) takes their parents away.

“We never planned this,” Sándigo told Jarvis. “It was planned by nobody. It just came.”

A former refugee from Nicaragua, Sándigo wound up in the United States after her family was targeted for opposing the Sandinistas. She got a job with the organization that settled her in the country, helping other immigrants with paperwork, jobs and apartments.

She recalls bringing towels to people shocked by the abundance. “So many!” exclaimed one mother of five children when Sándigo gave her six towels.

Taking on power of attorney for children whose parents are undocumented was never part of the plan. Jerryann, one of Sándigo’s two biological daughters, remembers how it started: It was 2009, and a brother and sister, aged 9 and 11, showed up at Sándigo’s door with their uncle. Their mother was in detention.

“You were like, ‘Oh, they’re going to stay the night,’” Jerryann reminded Sándigo. “And then one night became forever.”

Sándigo does not personally house or care for the majority of the children whose parents have given her power of attorney. But a third of the children on her list have already had at least one parent deported, she estimates, and she has never turned away a family hoping that their children could live with her.

The number of families who have sought her out has only increased since President Trump was elected, Sándigo says.

“Hello Señora,” read a recent, unpunctuated message to Sándigo. “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.”

Jarvis describes Sándigo taking two calls at once, one pressed to each ear, advising two families simultaneously.

“I feel like I am one of those kids,” she told Jarvis, “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.”

More than 4 million American children have an undocumented parent. Jarvis says many of them stop eating or speaking when their parents are deported, or attempt suicide.

These children cannot petition for their parents to stay with them, even though they are American citizens. Indeed, as many as a quarter of all the people deported from the United States are parents of American children. As Jarvis explains:

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.

Instead, many undocumented parents face an impossible choice: take their children to a country whose language they may not speak and where they may live in danger or in poverty, or leave them behind.

“That’s what I call a choiceless choice,” David B. Thronson, a professor at the Michigan State University College of Law, told Jarvis.

So for many parents, the choice is Sándigo. “What if there were a sudden wave of children who needed her?” asks Jarvis.

“That could happen anytime,” says Sándigo’s husband, Reymundo Otero. “It’s for real, you know.”

Sándigo did know, Jarvis writes.

“I don’t have enough time or resources even for the first hundred kids,” Sándigo said. “Even for the first 10!”

The Editors.

P.S. Here are some other pieces we think are valuable this week:

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