Posted on Sat, Oct. 27, 2007
Ex Contra activist represents U.S. children of illegal immigrants
By LAURA WIDES-MUNOZ
AP Hispanic Affairs Writer
Experts say Nora Sandigo's bid to get the U.S. Supreme Court to stop the deportation of illegal immigrants with U.S.-born children hasn't a prayer.
Sandigo just nods - she's heard it all before.
Naysayers scoffed when the Miami immigration activist and former Contra rebel supporter pushed to stop the deportation of thousands of Central Americans immigrants who'd fled their region's civil wars in the 1980s. Then Sandigo helped bring a class-action lawsuit for them, prompting 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 petit, stylish, single mother of two.
Already, illegal immigrants living 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 the lawsuit. Ultimately, it would cover an estimated 4 million children of illegally immigrants who have no criminal background.
Those 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. The question is with whom? Most have to return with their parents to a country and culture they've never known.
Sandigo's lawsuit seeks 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.
Sandigo, 42, is in many ways an unlikely immigration activist. Although she has worked with Democrats such as Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy on immigration, her virulent opposition to Nicaragua's socialist Sandinista government has won her respect among conservative Republicans in Congress, as has her support for free trade. She's visited the White House at least five times in the last year.
"It is so good to have Nora be so involved at the local, state and federal level on immigration reform because it balances the ideological spectrum," said U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., who has known Sandigo for more than a decade.
Sandigo fled Nicaragua as a teen, leaving her own parents behind, after the socialist Sandinista government confiscated her family's farm. During the 1980s, she provided the U.S.-backed Contra insurgents with clothes and "everything that was needed" and later spirited her brother out of the country at age 16 before he could be drafted into the military. She became a U.S. citizen in the early 1990s.
Her support for free trade agreements with Latin America also puts her at odds many immigrant advocates who fear such deals won't sufficiently protect worker rights and small businesses.
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.
But Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors strict limits on immigration, said the 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. No question about it."
Sandigo said she's not asking for open borders and favors more border security. She simply believes those 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 are 15-year-old Teresa Flores of Yakima, Wash., and Ivan Torres, 8, of San Jose, Calif.
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. In the U.S., where she lived for more than a decade, Teresa's mother earned enough at a fruit packing plant to provide the basics for her children. In Mexico, she did not. Teresa again was forced to work and eventually 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.
Ivan's mother hasn't been tapped by immigration authorities, but she and her husband, who run a janitorial service, say they fear they will be caught any day. That's why they signed up Ivan.
"I don't want to get to that point. I was too afraid even to go to a lawyer, because you hear cases of fraud," said Noemi Salas, 29, of Durango, Mexico, who came to the U.S. in 1999 on a temporary work permit and never left.
Attorney Alfonso Oviedo initially filed the lawsuit in a Florida federal court, naming President Bush and Homeland Security. But he withdrew that lawsuit and instead filed it directly with the Supreme Court because federal law has severely limited lower courts' abilities to hear deportation cases, and in particular, class-action lawsuits.
It is a long shot. The Supreme Court rarely takes cases that have yet to move through the lower courts. Sandigo is still lobbying Congress for a bill to support her case. But she said a lawsuit was the best option after 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.
University of Virginia law Professor David Martin, who served as Immigration and Naturalization Services general counsel under President Clinton, says even if the Supreme Court accepts the case, the odds against Sandigo are great. Courts have typically ruled that there is nothing unconstitutional about a U.S. child being forced to live outside the country, he 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. He added that cases like Sandigo's will likely bolster arguments by those who support removing the automatic citizenship of immigrants' children born in the U.S.
Miami immigration attorney Ira Kurzban, who helped bring Sandigo's lawsuit on behalf of Nicaraguans in the 1990s, agreed the case has little chance. Yet he dismissed the notion that simply raising the issue would ultimately hurt immigrants.
"Should we be putting (parents) in the situation that if the they don't want to take the children, the children have to be public charges? Or, should we have a humane policy that would allow parents to stay under certain conditions?" he questioned.
Sandigo leaves the legal details to others. Besides running the nonprofit immigrant advocacy group American Fraternity, she owns a senior care center and a small real estate investment firm.
But she is adamant about one thing.
"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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