LOS ANGELES — 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."
• • •
Luis 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.
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.
• • •
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.
Rodriguez had been through such a separation before. In 2007, social workers had taken his daughters from Rodriguez's dirty, near-empty apartment in South Los Angeles. Rodriguez and his wife, Blanca, were cocaine users.
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.
• • •
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. Hahn okayed the reunification. His daughters were coming to El Salvador.
• • •
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.
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.
• • •
On Feb. 9, 2011, Rodriguez made it to the mountainous border between Tecate, Mexico, and the backcountry east of San Diego. He was caught by the U.S. Border Patrol and 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.
In May 2011, a judge rejected the asylum claim. Rodriguez was sent back to El Salvador.
• • •
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. 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. 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. .
In November 2011, Rodriguez surfaced at the California-Mexico border. He lived in an abandoned hotel and was earning pesos washing cars outside the post office in Mexicali. He planned to turn himself in to U.S. authorities and claim political asylum again. He looked forward to Sunday afternoons. That's when he got to speak with his girls. One day in January 2012, his older daughter picked up the phone.
"I miss you big time," he said.
"Okay," she said.
The younger daughter got on the phone.
He told her he loved her.
"Okay," 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.