MIAMI — Each of Nora Sandigo's six phones has a different ringtone, so she can keep track of which one is buzzing.
In less than two minutes, nine calls come in. On the other end: desperate immigrant parents trying to locate their children in the U.S. immigration detention system.
Confusion. Anxiety. Agony fills the makeshift call center set up in Sandigo's living room in South Miami-Dade.
"Help me find my baby," wailed one mother. Cried another: "My son has been transferred again and I don't know where he is."
Patiently, Sandigo, a dispatcher of sorts, takes a deep breath and adds their information to a growing list on one of her iPhones. Once again she has no time to chow down a snack as the mayhem heightens.
This week it was 500 calls. Last week it was another 400.
"This is the immigration system's version of a 911 call center, where emergencies are being called in left and right," Sandigo said.
When a call comes in, Sandigo dispatches pro bono attorneys and volunteer advocates to help locate children.
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In recent weeks, desperate Central American parents have sent their unaccompanied children to the United States in droves swelling the southern border. Under President Joe Biden, many hoped their kids would be received with open arms — a misconception stemming from Biden's promise to humanize the country's immigration policies. Instead, they are being sent to influx centers until officials can reunite them with their parents or a vetted sponsor, a process that can take months.
The surge is testing Biden's resolve to control the influx while trying to veer away from former President Donald Trump's hardline immigration policies and avoid the sort of calamity seen three years ago, when immigration officials separated children from parents as part of a "zero tolerance" approach. Many parents were criminally prosecuted and eventually deported, and lawyers have said they have been unable to locate hundreds of them.
More than 11,000 unaccompanied minors were detained between February 28 to March 20, according to U.S. Customs and Border Patrol. Nearly 9,300 unaccompanied children were apprehended in February, up from 5,600 in January.
To date, there are 11,900 children in the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services and another 5,150 in Customs and Border Patrol custody, according to the March 25 figures released Thursday evening by DHS.
In more than 80% of cases, the child has a family member in the United States. In more than 40% of cases, that family member is a parent or legal guardian, HHS officials say.
"The volume of calls that I'm getting is reminiscent of Trump's first year in office— if not more, a lot more," Sandigo said.
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The newest crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border comes at a time when Central Americans from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras—known as Northern Triangle countries—have been pummeled by the coronavirus outbreak, a severe economic contraction and the busiest hurricane season on record. Even before the pandemic, high levels of violence, unemployment and endemic poverty led many to try the risky journey to the United States.
Upon taking office, Biden signed a raft of executive orders aiming to undo strict immigration guidelines implemented by the previous administration. He also put forward a proposal to offer a pathway to citizenship for an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants, calling on Congress to get behind him. And he immediately called for the creation of a task force to reunite families previously separated at the border.
For some families, those were signs that now was the time to come.
"Based on my calls with families, they had an erred perception that the borders are open because Biden was elected," Sandigo said. "And although my team will do anything to help children reunite with their families, it's imperative that parents don't set their kids on this dangerous journey across borders that can lead to rape, trafficking, death. It's not worth their life."
Graciela said she was convinced that under Biden, she'd finally be able to reunite with her daughters, ages 9 and 4. She left Mexico two years ago fleeing gang violence and eventually made it to Nebraska. Earlier this year, she arranged for her mother to bring her daughters across the border at the Rio Grande. They were stopped and separated from their grandmother, she said, and for the last month and a half, their exact whereabouts have been unknown.
"We thought it would be a different process, not a process of separation," she said during a video interview. She asked that her last name not be used, fearful of speaking out as an undocumented immigrant, and held a photo of her young daughters hugging each other and smiling. "I never thought they would rip them away from their own grandmother."
She said the girls call her, crying.
"They don't know where they are and officials won't tell me," she said. "My little one has major anxiety and finds refuge in her stuffed fuchsia octopus but border patrol threw it away."
Graciela is currently working with a pro-bono immigration attorney Sandigo put her in touch with.
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas recently said attempted border crossings are on pace to reach their highest levels in 20 years, and that any and all adults will be deported. Many are being sent back under Title 42, a public health measure invoked by the Trump administration during the pandemic that remains in effect. But unaccompanied child arrivals have also been climbing, with hundreds showing up at the southern border daily, and their cases are trickier. On Thursday, 681 were apprehended.
According to U.S. law, even when children arrive with an older sibling, grandparent or other adult relative, they must be separated and placed in the care of the Office of Refugee Resettlement until officials can connect them with their biological parents or a vetted sponsor in the U.S. This procedure, a decades-long cornerstone of immigration law, is designed to protect underage children from being trafficked.
Denise Fernandez, an 18-year-old migrant from Mexico who crossed into the United States in late January with her two younger sisters, ages 3 and 5. She said was apprehended moments after arriving, telling authorities she was seeking asylum because she had been raped and feared for her safety.
Authorities deported Fernandez and took her sisters into custody. After almost two months without news, the family found out late Wednesday the girls are in a New York shelter after contacting Sandigo.
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"I'm back where I started at the hands of my abuser— but now, with zero family," Fernandez said.
In response to the uptick, HHS has announced the opening of six new detention centers to temporarily house unaccompanied migrant children. Officials have said additional capacity is urgently needed to manage COVID-19 mitigation strategies and the increasing number of unaccompanied children referrals from the Department of Homeland Security.
So far the five centers are in Texas, with the sixth in San Diego, Calif. During a briefing Tuesday, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters that HHS submitted a formal request to use Joint Base San Antonio and Fort Bliss as temporary housing for migrant children.
In February, two DHS officials told the Miami Herald that authorities planned to reopen the polemical Homestead detention center in South Miami- Dade. After national pushback, the Biden administration said it has not made a decision on whether the center for migrant teens will reopen, leaving the facility's fate in limbo.
"This Administration's goal is to move unaccompanied minors who arrive at our borders out of DHS custody and into HHS facilities, and ultimately place them with vetted family members or sponsors as quickly and safely as possible," HHS said in a statement Thursday.
Parents fear their children will be lost
When Sandigo looks at an unaccompanied minor, she sees her own reflection, she said.
Sandigo immigrated to the U.S. at 15 from Nicaragua in 1988, arriving alone, on a plane, fleeing her country's civil war. Ten years passed before her mother was able to join her in Florida. By then, her father was dead.
A year later, she began volunteering with immigrant advocate organizations like Church World Service and American Fraternity to help refugees and asylum seekers.
"Every time a girl finds her parents it's like a flashback of what I always yearned for," she said. "I had to leave everything... Though I came on a plane, the nostalgia, the solitude, the hope, to have a mother or father there with me is the same. That feeling doesn't change."
In Homestead, Sandigo's house has long been known as a refuge for those on the margins of the immigration system.
Over the years, the 55-year-old woman has become the legal guardian of thousands of migrant children, operating under a gray zone of family and immigration law. Parents fearing deportation sign power of attorney documents over to her, making her an emergency backup if things go awry. These forms don't confer full legal guardianship or parental rights, but offer children an advocate in case one or both parents are detained by immigration authorities.
Sandingo sees herself as filling a gap in a social safety net that does little to help families, many living in South Florida, that federal agents could potentially break apart at any time. She is currently the legal guardian of over 1,000 children.
"Many would call my role burdensome but I see it as my calling," Sandigo said.
Over half of Sandigo's migrant children live in the Miami area, she says, with the rest scattered across other states. They still live with their parents, relatives or the friends of parents, sometimes also undocumented immigrants — although Sandigo said she has temporarily housed some of them since she began taking in migrant children in 2006.
Sandigo owns two small businesses and has two teenagers of her own. But she devotes much of each day to her growing extended family, buying them everything from food to computers and holding biweekly parties at her small West Perrine farm. In 2019, a film called "The Great Mother," chronicling her story, debuted at the Miami Film Festival.
Amid the flurry of five calls, a family of eight made an unannounced stop at Sandigo's home for non-perishable goods on Wednesday afternoon. As she continued speaking with families looking for children on the phone, she simultaneously packaged up Frosted Flakes, pasta, milk, and canned goods with two volunteers.
"Thank you, angel mom," one woman said.
With a phone on each ear, she hugged two of "her children."
"I won't stop until the sobs stop," Sandigo said. "And who knows when that will be."
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