He was not arrested and, after 13 months of parenting classes and drug tests, Rodriguez got them back. Blanca was deported and eventually lost her custody rights. He became a single father. A social worker who visited his home a few months later gave him high marks.
Now, Rodriguez was headed back to El Salvador with only an extra pair of pants in his backpack. He settled in with his brother, another deportee, in Quezaltepeque, a crime-ridden city outside the capital. He sold quesadillas at a textile factory and began the work of getting his children back. He got in touch with his attorney in Los Angeles. He took drug tests. He attended parenting classes. He called his daughters regularly, hoping that would prove that their bonds remained deep.
His persistence impressed officials at the Institute of Human Rights at the University of Central America, who decided to pay some of his legal costs.
The case of Luis Ernesto Rodriguez was now a cause: a symbol of the struggle many Salvadoran parents go through to reunite their families.
Back in Los Angeles, the girls missed their father. They didn't like living with strangers. They cried and fought and were passed from one foster home to another.
On May 14, 2010, several attorneys and social workers gathered in Room 415-2 at the Children's Court in Monterey Park. Presiding was the former mayor of Los Angeles, James Hahn, now a Superior Court judge.
Rodriguez pressed a cellphone to his ear and paced around his home in Quezaltepeque, straining to hear the proceedings 2,000 miles away.
He heard his attorney, Thomas Pichotta, tell the court that Rodriguez had passed the drug-testing and counseling requirements. His housing situation was more problematic. A video of the home sent to social workers showed saggy ceilings, an outhouse and a dirt kitchen floor. In a letter, the Salvadoran human rights group made a case that housing in El Salvador should not be judged by U.S. standards.
Midway through the hearing, Rodriguez's phone died. He ran to buy another $20 calling card, but by the time he restored communication the hearing was over. Pichotta gave him the news: Hahn had approved the reunification. His daughters were coming to El Salvador.
"I felt such peace at that moment," Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez had only weeks to prepare. He put up shelves and set up a reading table in the girls' room. He pictured sweeping them up in a hug, buying them secondhand clothes, showing them the volcano towering over their new hometown.
But then he looked more closely and saw a less idyllic picture: The ramshackle house was little more than a shelter. The girls' room was dank and stained with water marks. His brother, whom he barely knew, was abusing drugs; his brother's girlfriend, who had offered to provide day care for his daughters, wasn't interested anymore. The tiny house shook with the couple's arguments.
Outside, gang members controlled the streets. They extorted from Rodriguez $2 of the $7 he earned daily. Thugs clustered outside corner stores and were known to recruit children.
Would a responsible father bring his daughters to this place of grinding poverty and danger?
"I found myself in a country where there is nothing for me. Maybe it's my fault. But I never thought I'd be thrown out empty-handed."
Rodriguez begged the court for more time. In June, the court rejected his request.
Social workers canceled the girls' flight and mounted the girls' photos in albums that were browsed by parents seeking to adopt children.