On a hot Sunday afternoon, about 20 kids are saying grace. It’s almost lunch time, and the smell of corn tamales wafts throughout the patio of Nora Sandigo’s home in West Kendall.
“Because God, you’re going to give us strength,” says Sandigo, kicking off the prayer in Spanish. “Because you are with us and you will protect our lives as children.”
The kids, from toddler-age to adolescents, repeat after her. Their voices are loud enough to be heard but soft enough to be respectful. Parents are standing nearby; many are not praying aloud.
Sandigo doesn’t seem to mind. After all, she’s made the prayer for the kids. She is openly religious, often inflecting her speech with “Si Dios quiere,” or “God willing.”
“So we can become good kids for society,” Sandigo says, closing the prayer. “Well, let’s eat!”
Sandigo, 52, serves a meal like this every other Sunday. She opens her home to the local immigrant community, many of whom are undocumented (about 450,000 live in South Florida, according to 2014 data from the Pew Research Center).
Through her national nonprofit, the Nora Sandigo Children Foundation, Sandigo organizes food and clothing drives. She and several volunteers hand out boxes of diapers, dry goods and even bags of candy.
Lollipops aside, the kids seem to enjoy coming to Sandigo’s house. For a day, they cool off with popsicles and play in a colorful bounce house. The kids feel at home there because Sandigo is, in a way, more than just a Good Samaritan. She’s a guardian to some of them.
“They know I adore them,” she says. “They come here as if this was their home.”
Sandigo is a guardian for more than 1,250 kids. Parents fearing deportation sign power of attorney documents over to her. These forms don’t confer full legal guardianship or parental rights. Rather, they provide a lifeline for families – especially those with American-born kids – giving Sandigo time to assure the children’s safety in case one or both parents are detained by immigration authorities.
Sandigo has escorted kids boarding international flights. She has picked them up at school or at detention centers if a parent has been detained. She has represented them at hospitals if they’ve been injured.
“It’s a very easy process,” she says. “You just have to be willing to put yourself in their shoes.”
Sandigo has been taking in kids since 2006. She doesn’t take care of them all at once. Many live with a parent or family friend. She’s only had a handful of cases in which both parents have been deported.
Sandigo has had several kids living with her for periods of days to several years. She is currently housing 16-year-old Ritibh Kumar.
Ritibh was born in Seattle to undocumented Indian parents. He says they were deported when he was 9 years old. His family was on the way to Disneyland in California when they were stopped on the Oregon border.
Ritibh’s family moved around and eventually landed in the country of Georgia. Ritibh wanted to come back to the U.S., though. After all, he’s American. So he contacted Sandigo and took a leap of faith.
“I didn’t know much about Miami. I knew zero to nothing Spanish. It was hard at first,” he says, wearing a red volunteer T-shirt for the Spartan marathon race, which had taken place the previous day.
Ritibh says he has become more athletic since he moved to Sandigo’s home. He says she has encouraged him to pursue his goals, such as joining the junior varsity football team at Felix Varela High School in West Kendall.
“She is my second mom,” he says. “I can say she’s made me more happier. For football, she bought my cleats and my gloves. She came out to every game to watch me play.”
Sandigo says Ritibh is like a son to her and like a brother to her two daughters. She empathizes with his experience and that of every one of her kids. When she was 16 years old, she fled the war in Nicaragua. She arrived in Miami in 1988 and became a U.S. citizen in 1996.
“I understand the kids so much because even at 16 years old I still felt vulnerable,” she says. “I still needed the guidance of my parents, their warmth, their hugs and their blessings.”
Sandigo, who runs a plant nursery and an elderly care home, recalls her journey sitting near her crystal blue pool. The water reflects off the blue cloudless sky. She wipes away sweat from her eyes that could’ve been mistaken for tears.
Suddenly, a child named Rosita scurries to her. She’s 6 years old and is sweating just as much as Sandigo.
“Can I go inside?” she asks in that same audible whisper heard during the lunch-time prayer.
“Are you hot, mi niña?” Sandigo says. “Yes, of course, you can go inside.”
Rosita is one of Sandigo’s kids and even traveled with her to Washington D.C. last year, when Sandigo took a group of families to advocate for immigration reform.
That Sunday afternoon, she was calling on parents to organize another trip to D.C. this summer.
Unlike the previous year, though, the stakes are higher.
The Trump administration’s crackdown on immigration has parents fearing they will be detained and deported. Sandigo says the president’s election and his violent rhetoric on immigrants, particularly Mexicans, has had more parents signing power of attorney forms.
Rosalinda, 28, has been coming to Sandigo’s Sunday drives since Hurricane Irma. She saw the impact Sandigo had on families in similar situations, so she decided to sign the power of attorney documents about two months ago.
“It’s our small ray of hope,” says Rosalinda, who didn’t want her last name used.
Rosalinda lives in Homestead with her husband Benjamin, 28. They have two kids and have been struggling financially. Their youngest son, who is a year old, has a benign tumor. Medical costs have them strapped and Benjamin is the only provider, making about $1,200 a month as a landscaper.
The family says they are grateful for Sandigo and her foundation. Rosalinda says she is different from similar charity organizations because she specifically looks out for the kids – she makes them feel seen.
That’s one of Sandigo’s greater missions. She filed a lawsuit in Miami federal court last month asking for deferred action on immigrant parents who have American-born kids.
“We are willing to go all the way to the Supreme Court,” she says. “That would cover the majority of our immigrant community.”
Sandigo and the foundation are also fundraising to buy land where a center could be built. She says it would house the 100 neediest kids, or those who are orphaned and often suffering from the psychological fallout of a separated family.
Later in the day, most of the families have left after having collected their boxes of food and their kids have grown tired from a day of jumping.
One family stays behind. They’re sitting around the same table that once served tamales. They’re waiting for a notary to review their forms. Erica Guzman, 18, supports her mom, who's signing over her three other kids to Sandigo.
A breeze finally passes. It moves over those precious papers.
As Sandigo would say, si Dios quiere – God willing – the family won't have to use them.
Leslie Ovalle contributed to this report.