On the Tijuana side of the border fence, Luis Ernesto Rodriguez, 43, holds… (Don Bartletti, 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.
PHOTOS: The case of Luis Ernesto Rodriguez
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.
FULL COVERAGE: Without a country
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.