Editor's Note: As part of our Global Nation coverage, which focuses on a changing America as its population becomes more diverse, stories related to Latin America are prevalent. Today, we are pairing with an exciting project called Radio Ambulante. Together, we will focus on bringing stories from Latino communities across the U.S.
Felipe Montes’s story begins in October of 2010, in Sparta, a small mountain town in North Carolina. After breakfast with his wife, Marie Montes, and their young kids, he walked to the courthouse for a routine parole meeting.
He had wracked up too many traffic violations.
But this time, immigration officers were waiting for Montes. After almost a decade of living in the United States without papers, he was deported to Mexico, away from his family.
In Mexico, Montes worked non-stop, anything to not miss his wife and kids.
“I just get up in the mornings, at six in the morning, every day, no matter if it’s Saturday or Sunday,” Montes said.
And then things got worse. Montes’s wife, Marie, had debilitating health issues. She struggled without Montes; he was the kids’ primary caretaker and family breadwinner. Soon after he was sent to Mexico, officials from the county Department of Social Services put the couple’s three young U.S.-born sons, Isaiah, Adrian and Angel, in foster care.
From Mexico, Montes said he could care for his kids. He and his wife agreed that if the boys could not remain with her, social services should send them to Mexico to be with their father.
For the next two years, Montes fought to reclaim his children.
Montes isn't alone. The U.S. deported at least 180,000 parents of U.S. citizen children in the past two years, based on government data requested by the news site Colorlines.com. It has left thousands of children in foster care.
Donna Shumate is Montes’s court-appointed attorney in the child welfare case. As the legal case began, Shumate realized the state of North Carolina lacked clear policies for reuniting families separated by deportation.
“I asked the question of the social worker on the witness stand a few times, if the Department of Social Services had a policy with dealing with parents who were not U.S. citizens, who were actually located outside of the country, whether it be Mexico, France, Canada, wherever,” Shumate said. “And each time I asked the question, the answer was, ‘No, we do not have a policy.’”
Without any clear rules to guide social services, county officials argued that Felipe and Marie’s kids should stay in foster care. Those officials and the foster families involved declined interviews for this story.
As for Montes, the outlook was grim. He was in Mexico and couldn't defend himself in person. He faced permanent separation from his kids.
Then, last August, after immigration advocates rallied around his case, calling on local officials to reunite the family, U.S. immigration officials made the rare decision to allow Montes to return, temporarily, to North Carolina to fight for his kids.
But his return wasn't easy. When he first visited with his sons in a room in the basement of the Department of Social Services building, Isaiah, 5, asked Montes, “Are you going to adopt me?”
“I didn’t come to adopt you, I’m your father,” Montes responded. “I’ve come for you because I love you.”
In court, Montes argued he had always cared for his kids. I’m their father, he said.
After months of hearings, the judge ruled in Montes’s favor. Donna Shumate, Montes’s attorney, said ultimately the judge found Montes had been a fit parent.
“The judge found, as a fact, that Felipe was not unfit and that he had not acted inconsistently with his constitutional status as a parent,” Shumate said. “It’s not a test over whether children are better off in the United States or in Mexico. It doesn’t make him unfit that he was undocumented here, it doesn’t make him unfit that he was deported.”
In March, nearly two and a half years after he was deported, Montes boarded a plane to Mexico, this time with his sons. Because of her health, his wife Marie didn’t follow.
The father and his sons live in the Mexican state of Michoacán, located in the country’s rural central area. They live with Montes’s mother and siblings in a tiny house. The kids seemed happy, playing in the street with neighbors. But they were also in a country they had never known.
“Everything for them is new,” Montes said. “It’s totally different than what used to be.”
He talked about work being more available in the U.S., and that the kids were used to playgrounds and front yards with grass. In contrast, Montes says, Mexico looks bland to the kids — just dry fields.
But one person was thrilled about the family’s arrival in Michoacán: Montes’s mom, Griselda. She had not seen her son for years, and she’d never met her three grandchildren. She called them precious.
Montes tried to ease the transition for his sons. The first day he left the house to look for work, he left a list of English translations for his mom. She took care of the kids, but only speaks Spanish. Montes wrote down that when the kids say, “I want something to eat,” it’s "quiero algo de comer" in Spanish.
After a week though, the boys were already beginning to understand their grandmother’s Spanish.
But after being separated first from their father when he was deported, and then taken from Sparta and the foster homes where they lived for two years, the children worried about abandonment every time their father walked out the door.
Montes tells his kids, “I never left you. I just got deported last time.”
Montes is also struggling in Mexico. Home is in North Carolina with his wife. And he has a landscaping job waiting for him there. In Mexico, he found some work loading scrap metal onto trucks. But it barely pays, and it’s why Montes headed to the U.S. in the first place.
“For the whole month I’ve been in Mexico, I’ve worked five days, total,” Montes said. “The problem is, I tell my mama, I start getting depressed and upset about it because I’m not working and I’m not providing for the kids.”
Montes hopes he will be able to return to the U.S. with his kids, for good.
“I can come back to America and be with my wife and my kids, start a new life, together, like a family, like it used to be before the deportation,” Montes says.
For that to happen, he is betting on the immigration reform bill being debated by Senators now. In it, there is a provision that would let deportees with kids, parents or spouses in the U.S. apply to return.
This story was also made possible by contributions from Colorlines, Culture Strike and the Ford Foundation.