Felipe and Marie Montes hold one of their three boys; their youngest was… (AP )
SPARTA, N.C. — 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.