At 8am Friday morning, Felipe Montes walked out of a ground floor room at the Alleghany Inn holding the hands of his two and three-year-old sons. His oldest boy, who will soon turn five, skipped in front of his brothers and father and jumped into the back of an a county public transportation van that had just pulled into the parking lot drive the family a mile down the road to the local daycare. After dropping them off, Montes walked to the courthouse in the center of Sparta, NC, where he spent the day before a judge, and listened to lawyers litigate his family's future.
Montes had hoped Friday would be the day he'd get his kids back, once and for all. But at 4:30 in the afternoon, the father walked out of the courtroom with his court appointed attorney and a representative of the Mexican consulate with no news to share.
Montes has been singularly focused on his three young kids since he was deported nearly two years ago for driving violations. Weeks after he was detained, the country child welfare department removed the children from the custody of Marie Montes, Felipe's U.S. citizen wife. She struggles with mental health and substance abuse issues, and has been in and out of legal trouble. Montes has been asking that his children be sent to him in Mexico, but the county Department of Social Services refused.
The child welfare department came under significant pressure earlier this year to reunite the boys with their father. After Colorlines.com broke Felipe Montes's story, the Latino advocacy organization Presente.org launched a petition calling for family reunification. More than 20,000 people signed their names.
Following the outpouring of support, Montes, who was deported nearly two years ago, was granted an exceptionally rare permission from federal immigration authorities to return to the U.S. to attend these hearings. He arrived in Sparta expecting a speedy resolution to his parental rights case. But the hearings have been repeatedly postponed and continued since his arrival, and the latest continuance poses a problem because the case is now unlikely to conclude before October 29th, when he's required to board a plane back to Mexico.
"I'm disappointed that there wasn't a decision today and I wish I had more time to be here," Montes told reporters on the steps of the courthouse. "I'm running out of time."
The case was adjourned after testimony from the children's foster parents, teachers, daycare providers and a local preacher dragged through the day. Donna Shumate, Montes local court appointed attorney, says she believes the legal guardian for the children, a local court appointed attorney, is "trying to run the clock out" on the case.
According to several people present in the courtroom, the children's legal guardian continues to argue that Montes's children should be adopted by the foster families they currently live with. The county child welfare department had previously taken the same position on Montes's parental rights, but has now stepped back, letting the guardian litigate the case.
The guardian attorney and the foster parents declined to comment on the case as they walked into the courtroom after a lunchbreak on Friday. Both foster families--the kids are split between two different homes--want to adopt the Montes boys.
Soon after his return to the United States, the child welfare department in Alleghany County allowed Montes to visit with his children. He now spends several nights a week with them in a two-bed hotel room on the edge of the 2000 person mountain town. The children can not visit Montes at his wife's home because the child welfare department has prohibited her from contacting the children, alleging she neglected them.
On Tuesday of last week, Marie Montes was sent by a local judge to several months in jail for repeated parole violations on a set of three year old convictions for driving with a revoked license. Nearly a year ago, a judge ruled against Marie Montes's right to visit with her children.
Marie and Felipe Montes say that he was the children's primary caretaker, in addition to the family's sole wage earner, and his deportation sent her and the family into free-fall. Montes's return was supposed to provide him the time to pull his family back together. Now, with the clock ticking toward his departure, Ann Robertson, the Mexican consulate's immigration attorney, says that she is exploring possible avenues for Montes to stay longer in the country, but she acknowledges that it will be "a hard fight."
Before he has to leave, Montes spends as much time as he can with his children. On Friday, the judge reaffirmed that the child welfare department must continue facilitating regular visitation between he father and his kids. For a man threatened with losing his children forever, these visits are pure gold.
On Monday afternoon it was raining in Sparta so instead of heading to the playground, Montes took the three boys to the Burger King in a strip mall at the edge of town. He sat in the jungle gym-filled back room and the boys wrestled and slid down slides. Isaiah, the oldest boy, took off his socks and threw them from the platform to his father who sat on a bench below. "So smelly. Smelly socks," Montes said, as he put the striped socks to his nose. The boys looked down at their dad and giggled there way down the slide and into their father's arms.
"It feels normal now, even after all that time in Mexico," Montes said of time spent with his sons.
Even if he is forced to leave the country before the family is officially reunited, the three boys could still join their father in Mexico with the help of consular officials. In the meantime, Montes said, "I'm going to just pass as much time as I have with them."