March 9, 2017; Washington Post
Immigration courts are buckling under a backlog of more than 540,000 cases, and in lockstep with the unstaunched refugee crisis coupled with soaring immigration bond prices, there is no mystery as to how 350,000-plus detainees (asylum seekers, visa violators and those charged with crimes) wound up swelling ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) facilities between Oct. 1, 2015, and Sept. 30, 2016.
This federal fiscal year, President Trump’s comfortless border security policies are going to give a huge bump to those numbers if his administration’s simple and single-minded plans are implemented in full force. When it comes to protecting the rights of hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants and other detainees, there’s no one guarding this ICE henhouse. Very few among the imprisoned can afford to post their own bonds, and other undocumented immigrants face detainment if they attempt to pay on their behalf. However, now comes Libre by Nexus, exacting pounds of flesh in exchange for freedom and a GPS tracking device.
Libre (“free” in Spanish) by Nexus is a middleman connecting desperate detainees to bail bond companies who front a percentage of the bond in surety to the government, securing detainee release pending resolution of forestalled court proceedings—which may be years off and counting. Detainees can rarely afford their own bail nor have substantial collateral like houses or other property to put up for bail bond companies.
Libre by Nexus was formed in 2013 by two highly seasoned check-kiting felons, chief executive Micheal Donovan and his husband Richard Moore. They had a long history of leaving large bills unpaid, highlighted by Donovan’s 1999 plea to eight felonies for ripping off four Northern Virginia hotels, which led to time served of seven months after Donovan failed to pay a $45,000 bond. Accordingly, Libre by Nexus can’t act directly as bail bondsmen because of the founders’ felony convictions.
Of particular interest to NPQ readers, the pair claimed that Project Nexus, a former venture assisting general population criminal defendants, was a nonprofit organization, though Libre by Nexus staff concede it was never registered as such. Their new business model, though, is highly profitable, as is always the case when customers have no other choice—spend bottomless time in insufferable ICE facilities, or pay twenty percent of the immigration bond plus fees, as well as $14 per day for the privilege of donning an uncomfortable and discomfiting GPS tracker on their ankle.
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Detainees released with Libre by Nexus’s help claim their contracts come with verbal threats of return to ICE facilities if they don’t pay the $420 per month for the GPS tracking devices, the equivalent cost of leasing a car. There have been cases of burns and other injuries from the GPS devices, and also claims of usury, as clients who have spent sizable sums to repay Libre by Nexus for the cost of the bond find they have made little headway in reducing the principal.
Donovan paints a different picture—that of a benevolent service provider stepping in where detainees have no other means of obtaining freedom. “I care about our clients,” he says. “It would be awesome to not have to charge them any money, but that’s not really the system we live in.” He denies threats of re-detention, states that detainees are offered contracts in their native language, and promises the tracking devices are safe and a good deal.
On the last part, at least the numbers tell a different story—BI, a company that contracts directly with ICE, charges the government $4.41 per immigrant per day for the same service, a $50 million dollar annual expense for the agency. Court documents show Libre by Nexus rents the tracking devices for merely $3 per day, which is a lowball figure according to the company, though it won’t disclose a countervailing figure…perhaps because there isn’t one.
These numbers and stories of woe shed light on Libre by Nexus’s seemingly predatory enterprise, whose success will likely breed competitors to step in and share the spoils. Libre by Nexus has found practically free money, with nearly 13,000 customers to date and more than $30 million in annual revenues, with 200 employees scattered over 30 offices, including one in El Salvador. Donovan plans to hire at least 150 additional employees this year and expects his client list to double. Donovan and Moore were once lobbyists for bail bond companies, seeking to enact legislation in Virginia and Colorado (under the euphonious “Safe Streets Colorado” slogan) that would limit programs for and rights of criminal defendants in favor of bail bondsmen’s bottom lines (both efforts fell flat). Now, former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott is a lobbyist for their company.
Donovan attests to his efforts in support of immigration reform, including seeking protection for “dreamers.” Donovan states, “I employ lobbyists every day that seek to pass legislation that would put us out of business…I’m a bit of an enigma that way.” More likely, this is a deliberately fashioned front in support of his underlying business model, knowing full well that there is little chance reform will occur against the current headwinds.—Louis Altman