From [WashPost] Nefi Flores had been in an immigration detention center in Tacoma, Wash., for three months when a fellow inmate told him there was a company that could help him get out.
Libre by Nexus was barely a year old. But by the time Flores heard of the company in June 2014, it had grown from a tiny operation in rural Virginia into a booming national business.
More than 350,000 undocumented immigrants were detained between Oct. 1, 2015, and Sept. 30, 2016 — a number that could rise this year under President Trump’s immigration crackdown. As asylum seekers, visa violators and those charged with crimes wait for their cases to be heard in badly backlogged immigration courts, thousands are eligible for bail, just as they would be in criminal courts. Yet few can afford it.
Libre has found a niche helping them post their bonds — for a price.
In exchange for their freedom, immigrants sign contracts promising to pay Libre $420 per month while wearing the company’s GPS devices. But these contracts are the subject of lawsuits and allegations of fraud by immigrants such as Flores who claim they didn’t understand them.
In interviews with The Washington Post, a dozen of Libre’s clients said they struggled to pay the monthly fee for the device — which they call a “grillete,” or shackle — and feared if they didn’t, they would be detained again.
Most said Libre employees threatened them with exactly that. One asylum seeker said he was so afraid of being sent back to detention that he returned to Honduras, where he is in hiding.
Micheal Donovan, Libre’s co-founder and chief executive, disputed those allegations by former clients. He said the company explains its contracts and doesn’t pressure anyone to sign them. He also denied that clients are threatened and said Libre has never returned anyone to Immigration and Customs Enforcement for failing to pay. Although some immigrants also report injuries from the GPS devices, he maintained they are safe and fairly priced.
“I care about our clients,” he said. “It would be awesome to not have to charge them any money, but that’s not really the system we live in.”
Flores had spent his savings fleeing from gangs in El Salvador, with the hope of joining his wife in Los Angeles. After he surrendered to Border Patrol agents in Texas and asked for asylum, ICE sent him to the Northwest Detention Center, a cavernous facility for detained immigrants in Tacoma, and set his bond at $7,500. But Flores was broke. His wife contacted bail bond companies, but they required collateral, such as a car or house, that the couple didn’t have.
Flores turned to Libre, a for-profit company whose name means “free” in Spanish. His wife called the company and paid Libre $2,170 — 20 percent of his bond plus fees. Two days later, Flores said in an interview, a Libre employee was waiting for him as he walked out of the detention center, weeping with joy.
The man drove Flores to a McDonald’s and bought him a Big Mac and a smoothie, he said. Afterward, as they drove to the bus station, the Libre employee pulled into an empty parking lot. The man handed him a packet of documents in English — a language Flores does not speak — and told him in Spanish to sign, Flores recalled. Then, he asked Flores a question.
“Where do you want me to put it?”
“Put what?” Flores remembered answering.
“La pulsera,” the man said, using the Spanish word for bracelet. When Flores suggested his wrist, the man scoffed.
“I don’t think you’re going to want to walk around with this on your arm,” the man said, pulling out a GPS monitoring device the size of a pack of cigarettes with a thick band. As the man strapped the device to Flores’s ankle, he told Flores he had to pay Libre $420 a month.
Flores and his wife were unaware he would have to wear the GPS device, according to a lawsuit the couple filed against Libre last May. They also said they thought the fees would go toward repaying the company for the $7,500 bond. Instead, the money merely compensated Libre for its GPS monitoring services until his immigration case was resolved.
Libre called the lawsuit’s allegations unfounded.
Few companies have benefited from the country’s broken immigration system like Libre. An unprecedented immigration court backlog of more than 540,000 cases, fueled by the Central American refugee crisis and coupled with soaring immigration bond prices, means that many detainees eligible for bail choose between spending many months behind bars or paying Libre’s fees.
More than 12,500 have chosen Libre, which contends it is providing a much-needed service.
“Without us, there is no one to serve them,” Donovan said. “The [alternative] would be that those people sit in custody.”
Its critics argue, however, that the company is making millions of dollars by preying on the very people it claims to be helping.
“There is a devil behind the door to liberation,” said Paromita Shah, associate director at the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild, an immigration rights group.
As Libre has expanded, its contracts and tactics have come under increasing scrutiny from immigration lawyers, advocates and elected officials. Both a Guatemalan government official and a California congresswoman have called for investigations, although an ICE inquiry three years ago concluded that the company was not breaking the law.
Two lawsuits in California, including a class-action complaint filed last month, could bring new attention to the company’s business practices and the control it wields over the lives of its clients.
“I fled from my country,” Flores said, “only to find something here that is even worse.”
‘We are the only hope’
With more than 6,500 current clients, 200 employees and nearly 30 offices, including one in El Salvador, Libre by Nexus boasts yearly revenue of more than $30 million. It keeps spinning off new ventures: home rentals, drug and alcohol treatment, legal counseling and work placement. Donovan, who founded the company four years ago with his partner, Richard Moore, said he expects Libre’s clients to double by year’s end.
Standing in the parking lot of his company’s headquarters in Verona, 100 miles west of Richmond, Donovan pointed to a mound of dirt where he is planning a $19 million expansion, including “a museum of the American detained immigrant.”
He isn’t worried that Libre’s business could be adversely affected by Trump’s promise to build more detention facilities and speed up deportations, he said. In fact, he plans to hire 150 new employees in coming months to keep up with demand.
“What we’re going to end up with is internment camps along the Southern border, and people wasting away in them,” he said. “And I know that we are the only hope that a significant number of those people will have. . . . So I’ve got to figure out a way to grow our business to serve more of them.”
Donovan and Moore, both 39, met as teens and married last year. They are ex-convicts who became lobbyists, then multimillionaire entrepreneurs. Along the way, Donovan became an ordained minister. [MORE]