Nefi Flores had been in an immigration detention center in Tacoma, Wa., 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. By the time Flores heard of it in 2014, it had grown from a tiny operation in rural Virginia into a booming national business, the Washington Post reports. 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. These contracts are the subject of lawsuits and allegations of fraud by immigrants like Flores who claim they didn’t understand them. 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 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, said the company explains its contracts and doesn’t pressure anyone to sign them. He denied clients are threatened and said Libre has never returned anyone to Immigration and Customs Enforcement for failing to pay. “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.”