Every morning since the first of his three boys was born in 2007, Felipe Montes would wake early and prepare breakfast for his wife and children, get his boys ready for their day, change them, feed them and when he could not arrange a ride with another family member, drive them to daycare. Then he'd go to work at a landscaping company for the next 9 hours and return home in time to cook his children dinner. "I love my kids to death," Montes said recently. "When they were born, it's something so wonderful you can't explain." Now, Montes may never see them again.
In late 2010, Montes was deported to Mexico after nine years in the United States--cuffed and loaded into a van by federal immigration officials who drove him from his hometown of Sparta in the rural North Carolina mountains to an immigration detention center.
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With Felipe Montes gone, his wife Marie Montes fell on hard times. She was pregnant with their third child and was surviving on disability payments that she received each month due to illness. Without Felipe's income and support she could not keep her family afloat. Less than two months after their baby was born, just two weeks after Felipe was loaded onto a plane and deported to Mexico, the Alleghany County child welfare department took the children from Marie and put them in foster care.
Alleghany County has already convinced a judge to end family reunification efforts with Marie Montes. She wants the children to be placed with their father. "If they can't be with me, I want them to be with him," she said. "Nobody is a better father than he is."
But next week, on February 21, the county's Department of Social Services plans to ask a judge to cease all efforts to reunify the family and put the children into adoption proceedings with foster families. Though Felipe Montes was his children's primary caregiver before he was deported and has not been charged with neglect, the child welfare department nonetheless believes that his children, who have now been in foster care for over a year, are better off in the care of strangers than in Mexico with their father.
For Montes, this feels tantamount to kidnapping.
"I cannot find the words to tell you how important my kids are to me. I would do anything for them," he told Colorlines.com, speaking on his cell phone in Mexico while on a break from his job at a farm. "In this world there are many injustices. At the very least, I would like them to send my kids to Mexico."
Montes and his children, all three of whom are U.S. citizens, are among a growing number of families separated, sometimes permanently, at the intersection of immigration enforcement and the child welfare system. In November, Colorlines.com published an investigation that estimated there are well over 5,000 children in foster care whose parents are detained or deported by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The trend is a growing one that's emerging across the country, and often strikes small jurisdictions far from the border, like the 2,000-person town of Sparta, North Carolina.
A Dedicated Father
Nobody who knows Montes doubts that he is a wonderful father. For several years before his deportation, Montes worked cutting grass, cleaning gutters, splitting wood and doing whatever else his boss asked him to do. The owner of the company is one of many in the town who have only good things to say about him.
"He was a real good guy and as a worker he could do anything," said the former employer. "He loved those kids more than anything. We'd be doing tree work and it'd be kind of dangerous and he'd say, 'I'll do this but if something happens you have to take care of the kids, ok?' "
According to Marie's aunt, who is close to the family, Montes was the children's primary caretaker. "He took care of her and the children, made sure they were clean, cared for and dressed. He did everything for those children"
Indeed, even the child welfare department, which now wants to take Montes's children from him permanently, does not base its arguments for terminating parental rights on his character or history as a father.
After his deportation, Montes travelled to his uncle's home in a small town in the state of Tamaulipas, Mexico. It's to this simple five-room house that Montes wants to bring his kids. With the support of his uncle and aunt and in the company of three young cousins, he says his children would be cared for and loved.
"I will give all that I have to my kids," Montes said. "I married and tried to start a family. I did not imagine coming back here, but I would never abandon my kids and I want them to be with me."
Alleghany County officials feel differently. "[The county] did not approve the father's home for placement because water is hauled in, there is a concrete roof and cement floor," reads a court document provided to Colorlines.com by Montes's lawyer. The document is the county's response to a "home study" conducted of Montes's uncle's home in Tamaulipas by the Mexican government. The Mexican consulate in North Carolina sent it to the Alleghany County child welfare department last June. The home study notes that the conditions in the home are "good" and states clearly that Montes's "uncles would help care for [the children] and they would lend him a room inside the house to live in."
Montes insists the house is a perfectly safe place for his kids.
"The problem they say with the house is that there is no water. But," Montes explains, "there is clean water that we bring in to clean, drink, cook. We drink it everyday."
Montes's attorney, Donna Shumate, who was appointed to represent him when the children were removed from their mother's custody, says that she thinks the department has a kneejerk reaction against placing U.S.-citizen children in Mexico.
"It's not really subtle at all," says Shumate. "They've pretty much said that they won't place American kids there. He is a good father and the fact that he may be living in different standards now because he's in Mexico should not prevent children from reunifying with their father."
Our November investigation found that child welfare departments and juvenile courts regularly refuse to consider reunification with deported parents based on objections that have less to do with the parents ability to care for their children than with bias about living conditions in other countries.
Montes says he tries as hard has he can to stay in touch with his children. From his cell phone or, if he's out of minutes, from a payphone, Montes dials the daycare where the two older children go each day.
"The woman who runs the daycare, she gives me the time to talk whenever I want to," said Montes. "I talk to the 4 year old and he says 'Hola papa. Miss you. I love you. I'm playing.' The middle one doesn't talk much yet."
Montes's youngest child, who is now 1 year old, lives with a different foster family from his older two kids. Felipe has never met the baby; he was detained before the child was born.
Despite his efforts to stay in touch from Mexico, the child welfare department states in another document that Montes is not complying with its case plan because he "does not call [at] the same time every week." Further, the document notes, because "Felipe has not made an [sic] progress toward trying to obtain a temporary VISA or become legal to come back to the United States to visit or get his children," he is not fit to care for the kids.
It is virtually impossible for deportees to return to the United States. But according to Montes's attorney, nobody involved in the child welfare case has an understanding of federal immigration policy.
The court reports note that the children are all healthy, but the two older boys had to be removed from their first foster care home, according to one of the documents, "due to repeated concerns of corporal punishment being used in the home." Marie was beside herself when she found out. "We struggled, but I never hit my kids," she said.
Before the children were removed, the Department of Social Services had intermittent contact with the Montes family. In times when the family needed help paying bills, Marie asked for financial assistance from the county. Once, the daycare reported to the child welfare department that one of their children had arrived in the morning with an unchanged diaper, but neglect allegations were fully cleared, according to Montes, and the children were never removed from their parent's custody.
The day after Montes was detained, Marie says a child welfare caseworker came knocking on the door of their trailer to check on the children. "They knew he was deported," said Marie, "and it was like they were ready to take the kids right away."
In 2011, the federal government deported more noncitizens than any single year in generations, and approximately 22 percent of those deported were the parents of U.S. citizen children. This is according to data released by ICE to the Applied Research Center, which publishes Colorlines.com, in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. Like Felipe, most undocumented immigrants have lived in the U.S. for some time: nearly two thirds for over a decade, and nearly half have children. As fewer and fewer Latin Americans make the journey to cross over the border, the undocumented population subject to deportation is increasingly built of men and women who have deep roots here.
The Obama administration has recently vowed to change course and focus on deporting immigrants with criminal convictions, but the types of convictions it considers damning enough to warrant expulsion are not constrained to the egregious. And the federal government has indicated it plans to continue deporting record numbers of people.
Montes's case reveals how indiscriminate the deportation system has become. He was married to a United States citizen, and thus eligible for a visa. But he said the process of applying for documents was simply too expensive--thousands of dollars to complete visa applications and pay for travel costs to leave the country and apply, as the rules demand. What's more, as the breadwinner in the family, he feared that leaving to Mexico while he applied for reentry would leave his family at risk.
Because Montes was undocumented, he couldn't apply for a driver's license and was forced to operate a car without one. Sometimes, he would be pulled over by local police who'd ticket him for driving without a license and registration, and over time the tickets piled up. Eventually, Montes was called into court. He was put on probation for the compounding violations and ordered not to drive. He tried to comply, he said, only getting behind the wheel when his family's life simply demanded it.
On Tuesday, October 5, Montes's probation officer came to the family's two bedroom trailer in Sparta and told him that he must appear in court the following day to pay fines associated with his driving violations. After preparing breakfast and readying his kids for daycare, Montes asked one of his wife's family members for a ride to the courthouse. Inside the front doors, two uniformed men wearing "ICE" badges were waiting for him. His hands and ankles were cuffed and a chain was wrapped around his waist. He was loaded into a paddy wagon with several other Latino men for a drive to a South Carolina detention center. Several days later, Montes was moved to the Stewart Detention Center in Georgia where he was incarcerated until December 3, 2010, the day he was deported.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement has claimed that they allow parents facing deportation to make decisions about what happens to their children. In a recent statement, the agency said, "ICE works with individuals in removal proceedings to ensure they have ample opportunity to make important decisions regarding the care and custody of their children."
But this has not always been true. Montes said he was removed "without being able to say anything to my wife. Without seeing my children even one more time...My wife was left completely alone and pregnant."
ICE additionally claims that it is not to blame for the kind of separation that the three Montes children and thousands of other children face, saying in a statement responding to the findings of our investigation that child welfare departments "independently remove children from a home when there are concerns for the child's safety and care."
Montes's story and those of hundreds of other families cast a different picture. His children were removed from Marie's care following debilitating health issues and her economic decline--she could not afford to pay for heating and electric for their home and, she says, the child welfare department refused to assist her in payments. But Montes's lawyer and his wife are clear that the children would never have been taken if he had not been deported and thus had been around to care for the children.
Now, ICE has done its damage and responsibility lies with the child welfare department to keep the Montes family together. Alleghany County has already convinced a judge to end reunification efforts with Marie. Now, she wants the children to be placed with their father.
With the help of the Mexican Consulate in North Carolina, Montes's kids could be flown to Mexico. But the child welfare department has decided to ask a judge to terminate his parental rights. The latest court document notes that the "foster families have expressed a desire to adopt the children that are currently placed in their home." If the judge agrees with the Alleghany County Department of Social Services, Montes will lose all ties to his children.
With reporting from Esther Portillo-Gonzales.