Though they are undocumented immigrants with little money, two Mexican grandparents are fighting in Chicago for legal custody of their five young U.S.-born grandchildren whose mother died of cancer and whose father was deported for domestic violence.

"For them we have always been Mom and Dad, never the grandparents," Maria Martinez said in an interview with Efe.

Together with her husband Marcelo, they have always looked after the children, who now range in age from 1 to 7, while their daughter Rosa was working in a factory and later when she became ill with cervical cancer.

Rosa died six months ago at the age of 25, and the father was deported to Mexico a long time before because of his acts of domestic violence, including beating two of the toddlers.

"The children are always clean, they have a place to play and they make me very happy and give me the strength to carry on," Maria said.

Marcelo, que often works nights, takes charge of driving the kids to and from school and to visits with the doctor or dentist.

Both are natives of the southern Mexican state of Guerrero and have lived in the Chicago area for more than 15 years.

"May we never lack the strength in our arms to carry them," Maria said, adding that the presence of the youngsters in their lives "is what most helps to keep us going."

Legal custody of the children has not been questioned up to now by the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, but Maria fears that the state wants to take charge of their upbringing.

As Illinois residents, the children have the right to free medical care and receive $400 a month in cash and a $400 debit card to pay for food.

"We're undocumented, we don't have much money and that scares me," Maria said despite assurances received from the social worker handling the case.

The Martinez family lives in Cicero, west of Chicago, but their case was taken by an ex-workmate of the kids' mother to the United Church of Christ in Berwyn, home to many Mexican immigrants.

The church, headed by Salvadoran pastor Luis Arturo Alvarenga, organized help for the grandparents and sent a delegation to the Martinez home.

"We wanted to see the situation up close," the volunteer Hilda Burgos said, "and we found a very difficult state of economic deterioration."

In her opinion, the grandparents run "a very high risk" of losing custody for lack of legal counsel, since the social worker's assurances up to now have not been documented: "It has all been words, nothing on paper."

"No one has a clear idea of the custody process and in fact someone could be lying to them," Burgos said.

While the church seeks legal aid to get ready for the first hearing at court, which will be scheduled for sometime in the coming days, the community launched other emergency measures such as a collection of funds, food and clothing to help the family.

The birthdays of two of the kids were celebrated on May 29 under the slogan "united by a smile," and donations were collected from other churches.

Burgos did not reveal the amount of money collected for legal aid, but said that "it's enough to try and avoid a tremendous injustice," which would be the loss of custody by the grandparents.