CHICAGO -- Wasteful, senseless and cruel. How better to describe the ridiculous battle that Felipe Montes is waging to be reunited with his three U.S.-born children? Since his deportation, they've been ensnared by the foster care system and are at risk of being put up for adoption.
Montes, who had lived in the U.S. illegally for almost 10 years, was sent back to Mexico in 2010 after having been sentenced to probation following an arrest for driving with an expired license, an expired registration and no automobile insurance. He was detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents at one of his probation meetings.
Under normal circumstances, Montes' children would have been put in the care of a relative. But since there was no relative capable of caring for them, social workers took his boys, all under the age of 7, and separated them into different foster families. Now the state of North Carolina won't let Montes claim his children just because he's in Mexico.According to an Associated Press report, ICE officials said they didn't communicate with North Carolina's Child Protective Services about Montes because it's not their job to call child welfare officials every time a parent is detained, and noted that they don't have a formal policy for dealing with child welfare agencies.This is not a mere blip. Last fall the Applied Research Center (ARC), a New York-based social justice public policy institute, detailed in a report that 5,100 U.S.-born children whose parents are caught up in illegal immigration detention are "highly likely" to be lost in the foster care system even though their parents want to care for them once they return to their native country.
This separation of children usually happens because the parents, who are effectively imprisoned, are not able to comply with standard procedures for proving a parent is fit to care for their child. According to the ARC, parents are detained an average of 370 miles from their kids and without meaningful ways to participate in decisions about their well-being or comply with reunification plans.
And worse, as Seth Freed Wessler, the author and principal investigator of the ARC's report "Shattered Families: The Perilous Intersection of Immigration Enforcement and the Child Welfare System" told me, "In some cases, when parents are back in their native countries, (child welfare agencies) are denying parents custody by arguing that, even parentless, children are better off in the U.S."
Cruelly, that's exactly the stance the Alleghany County Department of Social Services in Sparta, N.C., is taking as it tries to sever all of Montes' parental rights. As the AP reported, the agency believes the kids would be better off here in foster care than in Mexico with their dad and his family because he lives in a small village and the residence, while having a refrigerator, satellite TV, a microwave, room to play and a school nearby, lacks running water.The whole thing is ridiculous. There are people all over the world who don't have the luxury of running water, but our government doesn't usually take an active role in scattering their families. And think about this: How much is it costing North Carolina taxpayers for Montes' past four hearings on the matter -- at least two more are expected -- which have required multiple social workers and judges? Plus, the cost to keep three kids in foster care is easily $20,000-$30,000 for each child annually.And for what? The man was deported after he'd been convicted of traffic violations.
"There's no evidence he ever used drugs, no evidence of drunkenness or DUI. The state has no witnesses to claim there was abuse or neglect," Donna Shumate, Montes' court-appointed lawyer, told me. "Basically they're saying that the act of being deported is in itself a crime -- which it is not -- and that he's unfit because he's living in Mexico."
ICE officials told me very clearly, "For parents who are ordered removed, it is their decision whether or not to relocate their children with them," reiterating long-standing legal precedent on the rights of parents, regardless of their immigration status.
Obviously, brains reflexively turn to mush anytime illegal immigration comes into play. But let's hope someone in North Carolina has the sense to stop this cruel, expensive craziness and respect the rights of U.S.-citizen children to be with their parents, wherever they may be.
Esther J. Cepeda is a nationally syndicated columnist. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.