Adoption Battle Over 5-Year Old Boy Pits Missouri Couple Vs. Illegal Immigrant

PHOTO: Encarnacion Bail Romero claims that her son, Carlos Bail Romero, was taken from her while she was being held in custody for an immigration-related crime, saying she was helpless to stop the adoption process.
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A tug-of-war over a five-year-old boy is at the center of a national debate over parental rights and immigration, and a sign of what critics say is a growing trend in which immigrants are being deemed unfit parents because they crossed the border illegally.

Seth and Melinda Moser of Carthage, Missouri say the boy they call Jamison is their son, and that returning him to his birth mother after five years will cause him untold harm.

"I could not love him more, had he come out of me physically," Melinda Moser said in an interview with a Missouri television station. "I can only imagine the trauma that he would go through in feeling like people that did love him have betrayed him, you know?"

His birth mother, Encarnacion Bail Romero, says Carlos was taken from her against her will while she was in federal custody for an immigration-related crime, and hopes to regain custody in a trial that starts later this month.

"I'm his mother, I'm the mother of Carlitos," she told ABC News.

Watch the full report tonight on "World News With Diane Sawyer" at 6:30 ET and "Nightline" at 11:35 ET.

PHOTOS: Tug-of-Love -- Kids Taken from Moms

The report is the first in a series from five graduate school journalists chosen to work with the Ross investigative unit as Carnegie Fellows, who found that stepped-up enforcement of immigration laws has had the unintended side effect of wrenching thousands of children away from their parents, sometimes forever.

According to a report from the Applied Research Center, "Shattered Families," as of the summer of 2011 an estimated 5,100 children in 22 states were in foster care after their parents were either detained or deported. Immigration attorneys and children's welfare advocates say a small but troubling number, like Jamison, have been put up for adoption to American families after their birth parents were stripped of their parental rights.

"It's a massive national problem," said John De Leon, an attorney for the Guatemalan Consulate who worked to help Encarnacion Bail Romero secure a visa to stay in the country while she fights for custody of her son.

How many families are involved? "Do the numbers," he said.

The ARC report concluded that at least 15,000 more children will face "threats to reunification with their detained and deported mothers and fathers" over the next five years.

"I can tell you that if you were to go into any dependency court, any child welfare court in the country today, any community where there are immigrants, this is a problem," De Leon said.

In May 2007, when Carlos was just seven months old, his mother was arrested in an immigration raid at the poultry plant where she worked in Missouri. She was charged with aggravated identity theft and sentenced to serve two years in prison, after which she would be deported back to Guatemala.

Carlos hasn't seen his mother since. In 2009, three months after Bail Romero was released from prison, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the use of aggravated identity theft charges in cases like hers.

"I started to ask for help and asked what could I do to find out where my son Carlitos was," said Bail Romero. "Nobody could help me because I don't speak English."

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Within months of his mother's arrest, Carlos had been transferred into the custody of a local couple interested in adopting a child. While his mother sat in a jail cell, he began living in his new home full-time.

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