Felipe Montes can see no reason why he shouldn’t be able to raise his three sons. He has a job and a house to live in. He has no known history of drug abuse. He has no criminal record, save for a mountain of traffic infractions.
The problem is that, after seven years of living illegally in North Carolina’s Appalachian foothills, where he worked, married and became a father, Felipe was deported to his native Mexico.
Soon after, his American-born wife was deemed unfit to raise the children. They were placed with foster parents who now wish to adopt them, an option favored by the social services department in rural Alleghany County, N.C.
The children’s fate may be settled at an April 5 family court proceeding in the county seat of Sparta, where Felipe will be represented by a court-appointed lawyer. But he is already learning that an international border, an immigration policy and 1,700 miles of pavement are not all that separates him from his kids. There is also the matter of custom, culture, and expectations — in particular, the differing ways First World and developing nations define what constitutes a good life for a child.
The North Carolina social workers have expressed concern about living conditions in Mexico, among them Felipe’s rural home, with a concrete floor and no running water, shared with an uncle and four other family members. They also note that Felipe has neglected to try to obtain a temporary visa to return to the U.S.
Engineering a legal return in a case like Felipe’s would be complicated, though not impossible, said Carl Shusterman, a veteran Los Angeles immigration attorney. Officials might be persuaded if Felipe could show his wife would face “extreme hardship” without him, Shusterman said.
But Felipe doesn’t have the money to hire a lawyer.
It pains him to be stuck back in the hardscrabble peasant’s life that he thought he had escaped in 2003, when he was smuggled by a coyote into the U.S.
But it pains him more to be away from Isaiah, 4, the son he calls “Big Boy,” Adrian, 2, who used to gobble his made-from-scratch Mexican rice, and Angel, the toddler he has never seen, born just after immigration agents flew him over the border.
“I don’t want my kids to be with somebody else’s family,” the 31-year-old father said in an interview one March evening over a staticky cellphone connection. “They’re my babies.”
While Montes’ case is a relative novelty in North Carolina, authorities in California have regularly decided in favor of foreign-born parents, amid a rise in deportation cases involving split families. A recent report by the New York-based Applied Research Center, a liberal think tank, found that more than 46,000 mothers and fathers were removed from the U.S. in the first six months of 2011.
Los Angeles County child welfare officials have no data on how many such cases they have handled. They say that they require that a parent show a stable home and job to gain custody, and that they don’t judge foreign housing by U.S. standards.
The story of the Montes family, like many family law cases, is complicated. Marie Montes, 31, has a record of petty crime and drug abuse; she says she suffers from mental health issues.
Born and raised in the Appalachian region, she was pregnant with her first child in the 9th grade. The baby, a girl, was one of four children she would bear before meeting Felipe. She had lost custody of all of them.
Felipe first saw Marie on the streets of Sparta one evening in 2006. She was walking home from the store. He was driving his pickup back from his job at the sawmill across the Virginia line.
Marie’s hair is dyed red now, but then she was a blond, with spectral white skin and a faint resemblance to Jaime Pressly, the North Carolina-born actress. Felipe offered her a ride. She spoke some Spanish. Felipe’s English was negligible.
“I think he acted like he knew what I was saying,” she said, “but he didn’t.”
He drove her home, then kept coming around. Sometimes they would visit Marie’s grandmother, who introduced Felipe to Southern-style home cooking: beans, corn bread and cabbage. Felipe would smile, and point to what he wanted.
He married Marie in 2006 at the magistrate’s office. June Moxley, Marie’s aunt, recalled that Felipe was good to her. He bought an expensive language program and learned passable English. For a while, he brought home a decent paycheck from the mill. But soon after they were married, he hurt his back. He tried to return to the sawmill, but he couldn’t do the required lifting.
Felipe picked up a little seasonal Christmas tree work, and got a job as a landscaper working for one of Marie’s relatives. But it wasn’t enough.
The Alleghany County social services department had to assist the family on a regular basis with food, clothing, diapers and transportation, according to court documents.
The fact that Felipe required public welfare now forms part of the argument against letting him have his boys back. One social worker noted that he was “unable to show that he was able to properly provide for and care for the children” in the past.
By other accounts, Felipe doted on his boys. He woke them in the morning, cooked for them and took them to day care. “He really was the caregiver,” Moxley said. “He was really good with those kids.” Moxley, like Marie, thinks he deserves to have them back.
County court records show Felipe was constantly tangling with the North Carolina law. A concealed weapons charge, the most serious, was eventually dropped. Much of the rest amounted to the traffic-related woes of an illegal immigrant in the American countryside: driving without a license, without insurance, without registration, with a borrowed license plate.
One day in October 2010, while he was on probation for driving without a license, Felipe’s probation officer asked him to come to the office to check in. Felipe dropped Isaiah and Adrian off at day care, went to the probation office, and was greeted by federal immigration officers.
He was taken into custody, and was held in detention for about two months.
Then he was gone.
“I left my wife pregnant with my poor baby,” he says today. “I never saw my kid.”
The county social services department did not return calls about the ensuing custody case. Court documents provided by Felipe’s lawyer show that department officials tried to keep open the possibility of reunion with the mother. But they eventually determined she was not capable of handling them.
Felipe did not learn of his rights until around February 2011, when local lawyer Donna Shumate was appointed to represent him.
In June, a government agency in Mexico sent their study of Felipe’s new home to North Carolina. It was short on details, but noted that the place had a refrigerator, microwave and television. Its overall status was listed as “good.” In the space to describe nearby medical services, officials had written “ninguno.” None.
In October, the court-appointed guardian of the boys recommended that the children, who were thriving with their foster parents, be adopted. The report went into great detail about Marie’s precarious state. As for Felipe, it simply noted that he had been deported.
An attorney for the social services department argued to the judge “that deportation was similar to incarceration … that deportation alone had made this parent unfit,” Shumate said. “But they had no law to support that position,” she added. “There’s not a case in North Carolina that says that deportation makes a parent unfit.”
After District Judge Michael Duncan ruled that the department should step up efforts to reunify the children with Felipe in Mexico, social service workers spoke with Felipe and set up a plan meant to show he was worthy of the children.
They told him to provide information on how the kids could obtain dual citizenship, written verification of his income, and information on medical, dental, educational and mental health services for the kids. They told him to provide any criminal history of the people with whom he was living.
He was told to call Ollie’s Small World Day Care in Sparta every Monday at 10 a.m. to speak with the older boys, Isaiah and Adrian. He was told to send them letters, gifts and money, if he could. He was told to call baby Angel’s foster parents every week to speak with them about his son.
In February, the department and the court-appointed guardian determined that Felipe hadn’t made progress on the paperwork. He called his kids, they said, but not at the designated time of day.
Felipe’s answer, in effect, is that he is a jornalero, a day laborer, not the kind of life that lends itself to documentation.
North Carolina officials have correctly noted that his house has no street address. One simply drives to the closest village and asks after him.
Nor is it a life that conforms easily to bureaucratic schedules. He said he called his boys when he could, sometimes sneaking the calls in while on the job on a pecan farm, after pretending to need to relieve himself.
The other problem is money. On a $75-per-week salary, sending gifts would be a luxury. He also can’t afford a lawyer to begin the visa application process.
Marie has told Felipe she wants to join him in Tamaulipas. But he has doubts. Through all of her many struggles, there’s been an American safety net to catch her when she fell. “They don’t give you nothing for free over here,” he said of Mexico. “I don’t think she’d last here for two or three days.”
Felipe is not a voluble man, but in his phone interview he spoke about the things he wishes for most: To be back together with his children. To love them. To see them. To kiss them. If he doesn’t win his court case, he says, he will be left with few options.
“Maybe I’ll try to cross back,” he says. He would be an illegal immigrant, but at least a present father. “I don’t know what else I can do.”
Times staff writer Richard Marosi in San Diego contributed to this report.