John Terrett is Al Jazeera’s US correspondent.
A family of five from North Carolina is on the verge of being torn apart forever, if child welfare officials get their way.
The state’s social services department wants the family’s three children to be adopted by US foster parents, rather than have them live with their real father in Mexico.
He was deported just over a year ago and even though his wife supports the idea of the kids living with him, case workers doubt his accommodation in Mexico is suitable and they’re pushing to keep the youngsters in the US.
I’m in the small town of Sparta to find out more.
Small town of Sparta
The first thing that strikes you here is how beautiful this area of the country is.
The bijou tree-covered Blue Ridge Mountains dominate the skyline, which today is even more picturesque than usual because of last night’s heavy snowfall.
I’m standing outside a shabby trailer on Zoes Lane which is where Felipe Montes and his family once called home.
Felipe was an illegal immigrant from Mexico – one of millions of undocumented economic migrants who live in the US.
He came to this region attracted by the seasonal Christmas tree industry and found work as a landscaper.
Felipe married a local girl, Marie, and together they had three children.
Felipe did most of the cooking, cleaning and caring, and his neighbours told me he was a very good dad.
Here at Felipe’s old trailer one of those neighbours, Johnny, backs that up.
“He’s good to them kids and he’s been a good guy.”
Alleghany social services
In December 2010, however, Felipe’s world began to fall apart.
He was arrested for driving without a licence or insurance – detained – and eventually sent back to Mexico where he now works on a farm.
Al Jazeera’s Adam Raney is in touch with Felipe in Mexico. But all I have to work with is a grainy YouTube video in which Felipe is making it clear how much he loves his boys.
“I took my kids to day care at 8 in the morning. I woke them up like always. I changed them. I fixed some things for them to take to day care.”
Sadly, Felipe’s wife was unable to cope on her own and within months of his deportation, the children were taken into foster care.
Now, Marie and Felipe want the boys to be sent to live with their father.
But social workers in Alleghany County, want them to be permanently adopted in the US.
I’m now at the Alleghany Department of Social Services HQ seeking comment but, because there are children involved, the law prevents them for discussing the case too much.
They will say that case workers don’t operate in a vacuum and argue all their cases in front of a judge.
But Felipe’s lawyer, Donna Shumate, blames the authorities for being too quick to condemn her client as unsuitable for parenthood.
“They’re treating deportation as being clear cut evidence of being unfit and there’s no case law to support that … there are plenty of people who are deported from this country and are we really ready to take the stance that deportation makes a parent unfit – I’m not.”
Not an isolated case
There’s evidence that cases like this are not isolated in the US.
Research published in the web magazine colorlines.com – which has been championing Felipe’s cause – shows twenty two states from coast-to-coast have custardy cases pending involving 5000 children of detained or deported parents.
A hearing on the future of Felipe and Marie’s children has been scheduled for the end of March so we’ll have to wait until then.
In the meantime, Felipe’s lawyer is gathering as much information about the area of Mexico where he now lives because one of the other concerns the authorities seem to have is that the accommodation has no running water – there’s a well – and may be unsuitable for American kids in other ways too.
On the YouTube video, Felipe Montes waiting for news while he works his farm job can be seen saying:
“In this world there are many injustices; for now at the very least I would like them to send my kids to Mexico.”
For now, father and sons must sit tight while the wheels of the US legal system slowly turn, wondering if they will ever be reunited as a family again.