The Hand of Justice

Lost in the immigration morass and mangled by the system.

Inside his spartan, tan ranch-style house just a few dozen feet from the Dolphin Expressway and close to the now-vacant lot where the Orange Bowl once stood, Julio Cabrera shows off the root of his troubles.The fit, olive-skinned 39-year-old's left hand is frozen — fingers clenched unnaturally against his palm. Tendons bulge below his skin, and poorly flowing blood tints the whole thing dark red.

"It's bad because no one wants to hire me," Cabrera says. "How are you going to work on a construction site with just one hand that works?"

Cabrera has been doubly screwed by the broken U.S. immigration system. Not only is his hand paralyzed courtesy of the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services, but also he's suffering through a nine-month wait in one of the nation's most clogged immigration court systems.

While the government, by President Bush's directive, has poured millions of dollars into the Border Patrol and upped arrests by the thousands, the number of judges assigned to hear immigrants' cases across the nation has declined from 230 to 222 in the past two years.

Criminal cases brought by the Border Patrol soared 97.4 percent in the first eight months of 2008, according to a report compiled by the University of Syracuse and released last month.

But in Miami, one of the nation's busiest ports of entry, the number of judges has declined from 20 to 18 in the past two years. At the Krome Detention Center, the caseload jumped by 112 percent in 2007, the last year available.

"[We're] the Cinderella of the Department of Justice — sitting in ashes sweeping everything up," says Denise Slavin, president of the National Association of Immigration Judges and a judge at Krome. "They fund enforcement efforts and forget about us.... We're losing people and our budget's being cut. And so it's been getting worse and worse."

Cabrera's case is among the most painful examples of the human cost of this problem. He left his native Guatemala in early 1983, making his way north through Mexico and crossing the border into Southern California. A few months later, he traveled to Miami, where his mother and several other relatives had already relocated.

He met his wife, Enna Almida Cabrera — a fellow Guatemalan immigrant who earned her U.S. citizenship — soon after moving to South Florida. They were married in 1989 and have three children together. While Enna raised their kids, Cabrera worked for construction companies, rising to the post of foreman with Baker Concrete Construction, headquartered on NW 90th Street.

Then last summer, when he was working at Miami International Airport, a heavy scaffold fell on his arm while he was helping a co-worker screw together a base. The injury wasn't serious, but doctors believe the impact inflamed a severe case of tendonitis in his hand. His fingers were permanently cupped as if he were holding a baseball. Doctors ruled he'd lost 75 percent use of the hand, and Cabrera negotiated a disability settlement with the construction firm.

It got worse. Cabrera had applied for U.S. residency in 1987, but his case was caught up in bureaucracy. Year after year, he received temporary working permits. Then this spring, he was finally summoned to Miami Immigration Court on South Miami Avenue to resolve his status.

As part of his application for residency, he was required to submit fingerprints for an FBI background check. After taking a look at his clenched hand, an immigration judge agreed that Cabrera could take a doctor's note and a notice from his lawyer, Joseph Lackey, to the fingerprinting office — only prints from his right hand would be needed. In July he headed for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services' Application Support Center, a dingy storefront wedged between a Foot Locker and a Family Dollar at NE 81st Street and Biscayne Boulevard.

But a fingerprinting specialist declined to even look at the notes, Cabrera says, instead grabbing his hand and laughing, "I've done fingerprints on hands that look worse than that."

While he writhed in pain, Cabrera says, the specialist — whose name he did not get — inserted a small ruler between his palm and fingers and then pried each digit out until it could be rolled in black ink and pressed to an index card. The fingerprints were so blotchy as to be nearly useless. And his hand — which previously had a 25 percent range of motion — was all but frozen and in agony.

"The next day, I was in a lot of pain. My wife wanted me to go to the hospital to check it out, but it's just too expensive," he says.

(Ana Santiago, a spokeswoman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in Miami, did not respond to an e-mail detailing Cabrera's allegations.)

Then there's his quest for a green card. It should be easy, since he's married to an American and has been here for years. But Miami's clogged immigration courts can't even hear his case until next February. And his injury makes a construction job impossible.

"He can't work; he can't go back home for medical attention he can afford," Lackey says. "All this wouldn't be so bad if they hadn't pried his hand open in the first place."

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