Activist asks justices to hear cases of illegal immigrant families

MIAMI — Experts say Nora Sandigo doesn’t have a prayer in her bid to get the U.S. Supreme Court to stop the deportation of illegal immigrants with U.S.-born children.

Sandigo just nods — she’s heard it all before.

Naysayers scoffed when the immigration activist and former supporter of Nicaragua Contra rebels worked to stop the deportation of thousands of Central Americans immigrants who’d fled their region’s civil wars in the 1980s. But her work prompted Congress to pass a law protecting them in 1997.

Experts said the same thing before she helped thousands more Central Americans win temporary protection after natural disasters struck several years later.

“We have to try. The worst battle is the one not waged,” said Sandigo, a single mother of two who runs the nonprofit immigrant advocacy group American Fraternity and owns two small businesses.

Illegal immigrants in Florida, New York, California and Illinois have asked Sandigo to become the legal guardian of their 600 children, so she could help the children if the parents are deported.

About 100 children have been entered into her lawsuit seeking to allow the parents to stay in the U.S. until Congress passes an immigration bill that would give them legal status or until the Department of Homeland Security provides them another avenue to remain. The lawsuit eventually could cover an estimated 4 million children.

Children born in the U.S. are automatically citizens, even if their parents are illegal immigrants. If their parents are deported, they are allowed to stay, but most have to return with their parents to a country and culture they’ve never known.

Sandigo’s lawsuit has been filed directly with the Supreme Court because federal law has severely limited lower courts’ abilities to hear deportation cases, especially class-action lawsuits.

It is a long shot. The Supreme Court rarely takes cases that have not moved through the lower courts.

However, she said the lawsuit is the best option since the U.S. Senate failed Wednesday to revive a bill to allow some illegal immigrant students to seek U.S. residency — likely dooming any immigration bills this year.

Sandigo, 42, fled Nicaragua as a teen, leaving her own parents behind, after the socialist Sandinista government confiscated her family’s farm. She became a U.S. citizen in the early 1990s.

Her support of free trade agreements with Latin America puts her at odds with many immigrant advocates who fear such deals won’t sufficiently protect worker rights and small businesses, but Sandigo says free trade and immigration go together.

“I don’t want people to say we are just trying to bring more immigrants to the U.S. I want people to be able to stay in their countries and find work,” she said.

Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors strict limits on immigration, said her lawsuit will only encourage more people to come.

“Family relationships and employment are what bring people here,” he said. “On the other hand, if having a U.S.-born child is a guaranteed get-out-of-jail-free card, then it will become a magnet.”

Sandigo said she’s not asking for open borders and favors more border security. She simply believes immigrants who’ve worked for years in the U.S. shouldn’t be separated from their children or forced to uproot them.

Among the children in her lawsuit is 15-year-old Teresa Flores of Yakima, Wash.

Teresa and her four siblings awoke in April 2006 to see her mother hauled off by immigration agents. She dropped out of school to take care of her younger brother before returning to the Mexican town of La Huerta, Jalisco, where her mother now works as a waitress. That job does not pay Teresa’s mother enough to provide the basics for her children, so Teresa returned to the U.S. to live with another family and catch up in school.

“As a citizen, I want to be heard. I want to be with her,” Teresa said.

Even if the Supreme Court accepts Sandigo’s case, the odds against her are great, says University of Virginia law Professor David Martin, who served as Immigration and Naturalization Services general counsel under President Clinton.

Courts have typically ruled that there is nothing unconstitutional about a U.S. child being forced to live outside the country, Martin said. “It’s up to the parents to figure out the custody case. The child suffers no risk to his or her citizenship status,” he said.

Sandigo is adamant.

“By sending parents back, what are you creating here? You’re creating children who are going to be resentful, angry,” she said. “You’re creating enemies within the country.”

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