Luis Ernesto Rodriguez eyed the metal door as he waited for his little girls. Now 6 and 5 years old, they were his only children, inseparable, with thick black hair and mischievous smiles that reminded people of little mermaids.
More than two years had passed since he had last seen them. What would they be like now? Would they recognize him? He had shed 20 pounds during the long journey north.
The door opened and his girls bounded into the tiny room. They shouted and laughed the same way they did when he used to carry one in each arm on the way to day care.
But their smiles melted away when they saw the thick wall of Plexiglas between them and their father, clothed in an orange jumpsuit worn by detainees at an immigration detention center in California's Imperial Valley. There would be no hugs, no kisses.
The girls pressed their palms to the barrier. Rodriguez did the same. His older daughter showed him how to shape a heart with her hands. Rodriguez did the same.
"Be patient," Rodriguez said. "I promise I'll be with you again."
Rodriguez last caressed his daughters in the predawn darkness of their cluttered apartment in South Los Angeles. The girls were asleep under the pink sheets of their shared bed when he kissed them and then rushed out to seek day laborer work at the Home Depot store on Slauson Avenue.
It was there, on that morning in November 2008, where police converged on Rodriguez, weapons drawn, and arrested him on suspicion of armed robbery. A short man with a bristly mustache, Rodriguez, then 39, fit the description of a man who had swiped three gold rings from a woman.
It was an apparent case of mistaken identity. No charges were filed, but Rodriguez wasn't going back to his girls.
An immigrant from El Salvador with a troubled past, he had a deportation order dating to 1991. He spent the next two months in jails.
The girls ended up with their maternal grandmother, who was destitute and suffered from memory lapses, so social workers took them away. They joined the thousands of children nationwide who are under custody of child protection agencies after their parents have been placed in deportation proceedings or deported. An estimated 5,000 such children are in foster care, about 1,000 of them in Los Angeles County, according to juvenile court attorneys and the Applied Research Center, a nonprofit racial justice think tank.
Many follow their deported mothers and fathers, if the parents can convince U.S. agencies that they can provide a stable life in their home countries. In such cases, social workers from Los Angeles escort the children to parents at joyous airport reunions, usually in Mexico and El Salvador.
But sometimes parents fail. Their children either languish in foster care or they're adopted by American couples. Some never see their biological parents again.
In January 2009, Rodriguez was placed on a flight to El Salvador, a nation he had fled as a teen, when it was rife with war.
He had hours to agonize over his girls' fate. "Being away from them was tearing me apart," he recalled.
Rodriguez had been through such a separation before. In 2007, social workers had taken his daughtersfrom Rodriguez's dirty, near-empty apartment in South Los Angeles. Rodriguez and his wife, Blanca, were cocaine users.
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.
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.
The younger daughter got on the phone. She seemed distracted.
"You don't want to talk to me? Are you busy or something?"
He told her he loved her. "I miss you so much."
"OK," she said.
They hung up. Rodriguez slumped on the park bench. Something didn't seem right.
A few days later, one of Rodriguez's attorneys finally reached him by phone. He had terrible news. His parental rights had been terminated at a hearing in October 2011, three months before. Too much time had passed for him to appeal, the attorney added. The girls' adoption would soon be final.
His three-year ordeal ended in the shadow of the 18-foot border fence.
The new parents would give them a good life, he acknowledged. There would be toys, dresses and schooling that he could never provide. The only thing left for him to offer his daughters was love, Rodriguez said.
"It's important that they know that I'm fighting, doing everything possible to see them again, to hug them again," he said. "They need to know that I didn't abandon them."
Rodriguez crossed into the U.S. in February and requested political asylum. Once again, his claim was denied. Once again he was sent back to El Salvador.
While he was detained in California, he tried calling his daughters many times.
No one ever answered.
Special correspondent Alex Renderos in El Salvador contributed to this report.
About this story:
The U.S. has deported more than 1 million illegal immigrants since 2008. This is one in a series of occasional stories chronicling the people and the communities affected. For this article, Times staff writer Richard Marosi interviewed Luis Ernesto Rodriguez in Mexico and while he was detained in the United States. Marosi talked with the girls' half-brother, Ricardo Alfaro, and several foster parents who cared for the sisters. He also reviewed dozens of pages of family court documents.