Through the summer and into winter, Rodriguez tried to return to Southern California, where he knew he could find an apartment and a job and establish the stable home life that the court required if he wereto get his daughters back. He hitchhiked and rode atop trains across Mexico, taking odd jobs along the way. Twice he was caught by Mexican authorities and sent back to El Salvador.
On Feb. 9, 2011, Rodriguez made it to the mountainous border between Tecate, Mexico, and the backcountry east of San Diego. The date was fortuitous, he thought: his younger daughter's birthday. For six hours he hiked through canyons, reaching state Highway 94, where he heard a dog running after him. He lay on the ground, motionless. Then he felt the hot breath of a Rottweiler beside him and the boot of a U.S. Border Patrol agent against his neck.
Rodriguez was held at the El Centro Service Processing Center in California's Imperial Valley. He asked for asylum, claiming that gang members would kill him if he were deported. He would wait two months for a hearing.
On March 12, 2011, a guard told him he had visitors. A social worker had escorted his daughters to the detention center. They were waiting for him.
Rodriguez didn't expect the Plexiglas wall that separated them in the visitors' room. The reunion dissolved into tears, despite his best efforts to cheer up his girls. "My heart broke," he said.
But he had reason for optimism. They had not been adopted yet. And they still called him Daddy.
In May 2011, a judge rejected the asylum claim. Rodriguez was sent back to El Salvador.
A few weeks after the reunion, a couple knocked on the front door of the girls' foster home. They were in their 40s, childless, with a large home in the Inland Empire.
They had seen the girls playing at an adoption fair at a park. Now they wanted to spend time with them. They took them out that day. Soon, they started visiting the girls every weekend, taking them for pizza, to movies, to the aquarium in Long Beach. .
They took them to their home. The girls, whose names are being withheld to protect their privacy as minors, had never seen anything like the couple's house — two stories, on a cul-de-sac. Lawns carpeted the neighborhood, and they could walk to parks. In June 2011, the girls moved in.
There would soon be a court hearing to terminate Rodriguez's parental rights.
Pichotta, Rodriguez's attorney, wanted to stall the process, but he couldn't find his client. It turned out Rodriguez was making another months-long journey back to California and had lost his backpack trying to outrun Mexican police. It contained his Bible, where he had scribbled the phone numbers of his attorney.
In November 2011, Rodriguez surfaced at the border, in Mexicali, Mexico. He lived in an abandoned hotel and was earning pesos washing cars outside the post office. He planned to apply for political asylum in the U.S.
He looked forward to Sunday afternoons. That's when he got to speak with his girls. He knew their foster family's telephone number by heart.
One day in January 2012, his older daughter picked up the phone. She said she had learned her multiplication tables. He was impressed.
"You've got to keep practicing, OK, mama?
"I miss you big time," he said. "Pretty soon I hope and I pray to God that we will be together."
"OK," she said.