"Hopefully, this case will make the child welfare system aware of due process, so that this sort of thing doesn't happen again," Lincroft said.
Allegany County officials moved to terminate Montes' parental rights after the deported father sought to have his children sent to Mexico, where he works at a walnut farm and shares a house with his uncle, aunt and three nieces.
A home study by Mexican social services authorities shows the cement block house has a refrigerator, satellite television, microwave and plenty of space for children to play. There's a school a few minutes away. But North Carolina officials balked at sending the three boys to live in El Encino, expressing concern the house there doesn't have running water.
Under Duncan's ruling, Montes' sons will go to live with him Dec. 7 in a Sparta hotel room paid for with the help of the Mexican government. The judge said he wanted to monitor how the boys are doing until February 19, when a follow-up hearing is scheduled. The judge could grant Montes full custody and clear the way for the boys to go to Mexico with their father.
Montes' current visa is set to expire Dec. 23. His immigration lawyer, Ann Robertson, said Tuesday she will apply to get the humanitarian parole extended until the court case is resolved.
Montes recently found out his wife is expecting their fourth child. He said he looks forward to the day his family can live together under one roof.
"The plan is to do whatever the judge asks me to do so I can get full custody and go back to Mexico with my kids," he said.
Associated Press writer Gosia Wozniacka contributed from Fresno, Calif.
Follow AP writer Michael Biesecker at twitter.com/mbieseck