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Children of deported parents forced into foster care

Felipe Montes in a dorm room on the pecan farm where he works in Mexico.

Felipe Montes smiling during interview in dorm room on pecan farm in Mexico

North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains, where Felipe Montes came for work, fell in love and raised a family until he was deported.

Kai Ryssdal: People sneak into this country every day, many of them looking for work. Every day some of those undocumented job-seekers are caught and sent home. Value judgements aside, it's a fairly straightforward transaction until there are kids involved. A government report out not too long ago shows that in the second half of last year more than 46,000 undocumented parents -- whose children are American citizens -- were deported. There's a hearing in North Carolina this week to determine if one of them, a man deported to Mexico, can come back to be with his kids.

Marketplace's Jeff Tyler has the story.


Jeff Tyler: Felipe Montes came here, to the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina, to work on a Christmas tree farm. He married an American woman and they had three kids. But because Felipe originally entered this country without a visa, his marriage to a citizen didn't fix his citizenship issues. He needed to drive for work. But couldn't get a driver's license. So he was arrested.

Felipe Montes: Driving tickets. Nothing else. Only driving tickets.

Local police passed him along to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. They deported Montes back to Mexico. What was the impact of that deportation? Felipe's wife, Marie Montes, referred all questions to her lawyer, Andrew Jackson.

Andrew Jackson: To be frank, I think it pretty much tore the family apart.

He says Marie couldn't cope by herself.

Jackson: She has a few mental disabilities and mental problems. And she had a hard time keeping the bills paid and keeping the family together. And social services came in and took the kids.

So now the kids are in foster care. From Mexico, Felipe Montes is fighting to get his kids back. And Jackson says the mother supports him.

Jackson: Marie would like to see the children reunited with the father in Mexico. And be in the loving environment they were in before he was deported.

But Sparta, N.C., social services have blocked reunification. Local officials declined an interview request. To better understand the case against Felipe, I turned to his lawyer Donna Shumate. She says local officials have issues with Felipe's house in northern Mexico.

Donna Shumate: The home study says he has no running water. That is something the department of social services has taken exception to.

But Felipe says, his house has plenty of water.

Montes: I got one big tank. It hold 22,000 liters of water. For washing clothes, taking showers, and stuff.

He buys bottled water for drinking.

Shumate: So there's water available for the house. It's just not the typical, plug-into-a-city underground system that we're accustomed to in this country.

Montes says, that's how we live in Mexico. Lawyer Donna Shumate says the benchmark in this case is based on the standard of living in Sparta, N.C.

Shumate: They're saying that, in the best interest of the children, they would have more opportunities in staying in this country than to be with their natural father in Mexico.

State officials won't comment on this specific case. But I did ask Sherry Bradsher, director of the North Carolina Division of Social Services, as a rule, does state policy hold foreign parents to U.S. economic standards?

Sherri Bradsher: Absolutely not. You're going to have to take into consideration what the standards and the acceptable living arrangements are for that particular country or culture.

States across the country wrestle with similar considerations. According to a national study, there are more than 5,000 children in foster care whose undocumented parents have been detained or deported. Seth Wessler produced the report for the Applied Research Center, a think-tank.

Seth Wessler: We project that if immigration policy and child welfare policy stay the same over the next five years that another 15,000 children may face similar situations.

In a written statement, ICE calls Wessler's report "misleading," saying that state child welfare agencies remove children, not ICE. And it's true, there are overlapping agencies involved here. Seth Wessler says, when he interviewed case workers around the U.S., many admitted not knowing how to contact parents in another country.

Wessler: Parents often struggle to stay in touch with their case workers or attorneys. And oftentimes are treated like they have abandoned their children.

He recommends that child welfare departments establish clear policies to facilitate reunification with deported parents. People like Felipe Montes. Montes says he hopes the kids will be with him soon. He doesn't want them to go to adoption. But because Felipe has been deported, he can't get a visa to come back to North Carolina for the hearing this week.

I'm Jeff Tyler for Marketplace.

About the author

Jeff Tyler is a reporter for Marketplace’s Los Angeles bureau, where he reports on issues related to immigration and Latin America.

Felipe Montes smiling during interview in dorm room on pecan farm in Mexico

North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains, where Felipe Montes came for work, fell in love and raised a family until he was deported.

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