It’s been quite a week for the undocumented dad from North Carolina who was deported from the US to Mexico two years ago after a minor traffic violation.
On Tuesday, Felipe Montes unexpectedly won custody of his three children at the end of a lengthy legal battle. After a three-month trial family reunion – if all goes well – he should be free to take them back to where he now lives in Mexico providing there are no more serious legal challenges.
On Friday, Felipe and his three sons got together for the first time since their court victory and I was there to witness it for Al Jazeera. Not that things went quite as I’d expected.
Two of Felipe’s sons emerged from a foster parent’s van, a little sleepy, after dozing in the back on the way over. His third son, Angel – only two years old – was dropped off separately.
The boys were a little wary of our camera but soon brightened up and began “performing” for it by jumping on the bed and asking for ice cream.
We were in one room at the Alleghany Inn, the only hotel in the town of Sparta, North Carolina, an area famous for exporting Christmas trees and garlands at this time of year.
As we watched the boys bounce off the walls, like kids under five tend to do, Felipe told me: “When you get a kid, no matter if he’s one or ten, it’s the same responsibility you have to take care of one thing … make sure they’re safe.”
Felipe Montes was an undocumented worker who lived in Sparta with his American wife and their boys until he was deported to Mexico after a minor traffic violation.
His wife was unable to cope with her sons, so social workers moved to have them adopted – and the foster parents are keen to take them permanently.
But last Tuesday an Alleghany District Court judge granted Felipe permanent custody of his three sons, saying his court could not find that he was not a good father.
Social workers had argued Felipe’s deportation alone meant he was an unsuitable parent. They also cited a lack of running water at his new home in Mexico as a reason not to allow the boys who were born in the US to live with their dad there.
Felipe’s Mexico home
Earlier this year, however, Al Jazeera caught up with Felipe in Mexico and filmed the bedroom where his children would sleep and the school they’d most likely attend.
True, there’s no running water – but plenty is available from a rooftop collection system.
Felipe’s lawyer, Donna Shumate, says international publicity led to US immigration granting a visa so Felipe – despite his earlier deportation – could come back to the US and fight his case.
“It’s my understanding that there’s never been one granted like that before so of course we could not have foreseen that. We also could not have foreseen that social services would alter their position in favour of Felipe’s custardy nor that the judge would open the case to the public allowing journalists in to report proceedings.”
Felipe may have won in court this week, but there are plenty of people in Alleghany County who are not happy about it. There’s a sense that kids born in the US should not be sent to live in Mexico under any circumstances.
He says he has to watch everything he says and does around the boys, because somehow it all gets back to social services, and he’s seldom painted in a favourable light.
Cautious but hopeful
For now he’s being cautious. The judge has ruled the permanent solution is for the children to be with him. But Felipe and his boys know they’re not home and dry yet.
His visa for the trial period has yet to be extended through to the end of February, though lawyers are hopeful it will be. There also could be another legal challenge at the end of February.
Felipe says he’ll cross those bridges if and when he has to, but in the meantime he’s living proof that you should never, ever, ever stop fighting for what you believe in – ever.