MIAMI — With no immigration overhaul in sight in Congress, immigration advocates have joined a South Florida activist's quixotic quest to persuade the U.S. Supreme Court to stop deporting the undocumented parents of American-born children.
Tuesday, Nora Sandigo and a passel of kids - including 8-year-old Saul Arellano, who has drawn international attention since his mother took refuge in a Chicago church last year to escape deportation - will march on Washington, D.C. They will rally in front of Congress and the White House and stand on the steps of the Supreme Court in an effort to draw attention to the American children of illegal immigrants.
Sandigo, executive director of Sweetwater, Fla.-based American Fraternity, has filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of more than 600 children, arguing their right to have their parents with them outweighs the government's prerogative to deport those who violated U.S. immigration law.
``There are so many people detained, so many destroyed marriages, so many children without fathers and mothers,'' Sandigo, 42, said before heading to Washington. ``It is completely destroying the base of society, which is family.''
Several immigration lawyers said they are skeptical the justices will hear the case - much less rule in the children's favor.
Close-the-border advocates, meanwhile, point to it as another example of undocumented immigrants overstepping their rights.
``I think it's sad that these advocates would use the children as pawns to push their agenda through a scheme that is nothing more than a publicity stunt,'' said Carlos Espinosa, spokesman for U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., a vocal advocate for increased immigration enforcement. ``This case will get laughed out of the courts.''
Even if the case's legal merits appear on shaky ground, Sandigo, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Nicaragua, remains undeterred.
``She has such a big heart, and is so positive,'' said Honduran immigrant Bilma Rivera, 36, whose Nicaraguan husband was deported to his homeland last year. ``My son's future is here, and I want to find a way for our family to be together.''
Rivera's 5-year-old son, Roger Castillo, is a plaintiff in the lawsuit.
The case argues that the deportation of undocumented parents is often de facto deportation of their children, and asks the court to establish the children's legal standing to request a stay of those deportations.
``We believe the constitutional right of children to their parents outweighs the statutory rules and regulations handed down by immigration,'' said Donald Schlemmer, a Washington-based lawyer who helped draft the motion. ``We're not saying this is going to be an easy case, but these children have the right to have this question answered in the Supreme Court.''
Other immigration lawyers say the case faces a hard road.
Miami attorney Ira Kurzban thinks it would be difficult to convince the Supreme Court to hear the lawsuit because it was filed directly with the high court, rather than rising through the lower courts first. ``It's very tough to win a case like this,'' he said.
Sandigo and her legal team - led by American Fraternity President Alfonso Oviedo - first filed the case last year in federal court in Miami, but then withdrew it to file directly to the Supreme Court, believing only the high court has jurisdiction.
Miami immigration lawyer Tammy Fox-Isicoff said the lawsuit is fundamentally flawed.
``I'm sure this was motivated by the attorneys wanting to do something for people in a helpless situation, but ... there is not a shred of legal merit to this case,'' she said. ``Maybe this was a last-ditch effort to get publicity for the situation.''
Sandigo is a petite woman, armed with three cell phones and an inexhaustible capacity to hawk her cause. She prods local officials to declare their cities immigrant sanctuaries, verbally flays Republican and Democratic lawmakers for their failure to pass immigration revisions and attends local immigration events - often with a handful of the children she's representing in tow.
She also occasionally hijacks other people's news conferences. At a February event called by U.S. Reps. Lincoln and Mario Diaz-Balart to push for immigration changes, Sandigo appeared with several children, including a teenager whose mother had recently been detained.
Sandigo nudged the sobbing boy onto the stage, where a bemused Lincoln Diaz-Balart handed him the microphone to tell his story as TV cameras rolled.
Advocates joining Sandigo in Washington Tuesday are similarly determined.
``We have a good case, and this is the best time to do it because there's no other alternative for millions of families,'' said Emma Lozano, head of the Chicago-based People Without Borders. ``If we don't do something, there's going to be massive deportations and separations of families.''
Lozano's husband is the pastor at the church where Saul Arellano's mother, Elvira, still lives, nearly a year after she sought sanctuary there. Lozano is bringing Saul and about 100 other children to the capital by bus to march with Sandigo.
``It's going to be all children, pure like a song of angels,'' Sandigo said. ``We want the justices to put their hand on their hearts and over their consciences and understand that this country isn't protecting the most fragile American citizens.''