Cindi Santana came to the United States with no documents after a receiving a string of death threats in her home town, San Sebastían Salitrillo, in El Salvador.
In August 2016 she was detained by ICE agents in the South Texas Border and the only way for her to get out was posting a $12,000 bond.
Her family didn’t have the money. When her husband asked friends for help, he heard about Libre by Nexus, a company that offers undocumented immigrants an alternative to post their bond. Santana had to come up with 20% of her bond and Libre would find a bail bond agency that would pay it.
Today, she wears an ankle bracelet with a GPS to track her every move. She can only remove it if she pays Libre 80% of her bond or if her immigration case is resolved. She’s been wearing the tracking device for 18 months and had to keep it on throughout a recent pregnancy.
Virginia-based Libre by Nexus lists 22 offices across the country and claims to have served over 7,000 clients since it started doing business in 2014. The company operates as part of Nexus Services, a corporation whose chief executive, Michael Donovan, ironically served seven months in 1999 for fraud charges because he was not able to post a $45,000 bond.
According to Libre by Nexus, their mission is to reunite immigrant families but a a review of dozens of court documents and interviews with Libre’s clients, former employees, and immigration lawyers, conducted by Univision News raises concerns over how the company deals with undocumented immigrants.
Libre’s business model has been criticized in the past because of the disproportionate costs that their clients have to pay. But a recent press release issued by the company itself revealed that they are under investigation by the Attorney Generals of three states: New York, Virginia and Washington.
The Attorney General in New York, Eric Schneiderman, opened the investigation in November 2017. The inquiry had been a private matter until March, 2018, when Libre sued the Attorney General in state Supreme Court, alleging that producing the information that was requested of them in a subpoena would endanger its clients.
In a statement sent to Univision News, Fernando Aquino, the spokesperson for New York Attorney General, said the investigation began “after receiving complaints from a legal services organization and amid disturbing reports of misconduct.”
In court papers, Assistant Attorney General, Joseph P. Mueller, states that the information they have about Libre by Nexus, “raises concern that the company is engaging in fraudulent, deceptive and illegal conduct.”
“We are investigating whether Libre misleads vulnerable immigrants held in detention centers about the cost and nature of its services,” Aquino said in the statement. “Libre has been uncooperative in producing documents pursuant our subpoena; it goes without saying that, as a law enforcement agency, we take all steps to adequately protect sensitive information”, the statement read.
Univision News spoke to Libre by Nexus representatives, who said they would try to schedule an interview. However, after multiple calls and emails, no date was set for an interview. Univision sent a list of questions to the company’s press officer and no reply was received.
In a 2016 press release, Libre by Nexus said they made sure clients knew how the company operates. "Our clients and their families come to us during times of dire need. As such, we take our responsibility seriously and work arduously to ensure that they fully understand how our program works," the statement read.
The root of the problem
According to Central American Legal Assistance (CALA), an organization that helps immigrants in Brooklyn, New York, if an undocumented immigrant can’t post the bond that the judge sets, they can stay in detention anywhere from two to three years while their case is resolved. On top of that, the bond amount is defined by a judge’s subjectivity or by arbitrary implicit agreements between the government officers and immigration lawyers.
Cindi Santana, for example, spent a month in prison after her bond was set at $12,000. She was told she could pay for it or wait until she was assigned a date for a court hearing and find out if a judge would be willing to lower the amount. She ended up going to Libre by Nexus.
To post an immigration bond payment has to be made in full and in cash. A second option is to go to a bail bond agency that requires collateral to post the bond.
But undocumented immigrants rarely have the full amount of the bond or any property to use as collateral. Libre by Nexus works as a middleman between the bail bond agency and the immigrant. The company provides the collateral in case the immigrant fails to appear in court, which would result in the bail bond agency losing its money.
Like Santana, thousands of detained immigrants who find themselves in a desperate situation reach out to Libre by Nexus so they can stay out of prison.
“I was happy because I was out, I was not detained anymore. But I didn’t know that I was getting out just to get myself into an even bigger mess,” Santana told Univision News in an interview.
She and her husband thought they would only have to pay a monthly fee of $420. “I thought: wow! $420 per month and I’m out. I’ll work hard and I’ll be debt free in no time. What I didn’t know was that those $420 were just to cover the fee of the monitoring device”, she said.
Santana said she arrived at Libre’s offices and she was given a contract in English, a language she doesn’t understand. That contract explains that the monthly payment was for the lease of the tracking device and not for paying the bond.
When the Salvadoran woman signed her contract, a Libre executive would explain every page but Santana claims they never told her how much she would end up paying. “They would say: this page says this and I need you to sign here. But they didn’t explain the entire contract,” she said.
Plaintiffs suing Libre across the country have filed copies of their contracts with the company. Univision News reviewed five contracts that were sent by Libre’s clients: only one page is translated to Spanish and there is no clear explanation of their collection system.
Data analyzed by Univision News for some 5,000 immigration bond amounts in five different cities showed an $8,681 bond average. If one of Libre’s clients received a bond of that average and wears the tracking device for two years, they would end up paying almost $4,000 more.
Santana stopped paying her fees a year after wearing the ankle bracelet because she lost her job. Her next date in court date is scheduled for September. Initially she paid $2,400 so Libre would post her bond. Then she paid $880 for the activation of the device and for the first month’s lease payment.
If she paid all the monthly fees that she is supposed to, she would have paid Libre by Nexus $13,360. And still she doesn’t know if that hearing will be her last.
Find out how much you would pay
Using this calculator you can figure out how much you would end up paying to Libre by Nexus depending on your bond amount and the duration of your case.
Duration of the case
Libre by Nexus
Activation $ 460
GPS device delivery $ 50
20% of the bond $ 1,700
GPS lease $ 420
Device insurance $ 15
TOTAL $ 17,610
Threats to immigrants
The Attorney General Office in New York started the investigation after receiving complaints filed by CALA, the organization that helps immigrants in Brooklyn.
“We had four cases where we allowed clients to take their monitors off because, as lawyers, we decided the contract they had signed was not valid,” CALA’s director, Anne Pilsbury, told Univision News in an interview. “It was too misleading,” she said.
In court papers, New York Assistant Attorney General, Joseph P Mueller, said Libre by Nexus might be, “misrepresenting and failing to clearly and conspicuously disclose the amount and nature of the fees consumers must pay.”
According to Mueller’s affirmation, providing contracts in a language that the clients don’t understand violates the General Business Law that rules over companies that provide services to immigrants.
The law states that immigrant service providers are prohibited from threatening, “to report the client to immigration or other authorities.” It also states the contract needs to be executed in a language “understood by the client, either alone or with the help of an interpreter”, who shall provide “an attestation affirming the accuracy of his or her translation, to be attached to the contract.”
Tania Cortes worked for two years at Libre. She said she dealt with “everything related to the clients.” She explained contracts, she picked up clients from detention centers and sometimes had to put on the tracking devices.
Cortes told Univision News she always made sure that clients understood what the contract said “page by page.” But she wasn’t the only one that had clients signing contracts. “A lot of the time clients didn’t understand what they were signing,” the former employee said
Libre’s employees who didn’t speak Spanish were supposed to look for an interpreter in their office to help translate the contract for immigrants. Cortes said not all of them followed procedure and had clients assume contractual obligations that they could not comprehend.
CALA’s director, Anne Pilsbury, said Libre’s clients understand that by signing the contract they’re getting out of detention. “Other than that, there’s not a lot of explanation,” she said.
Pilsbury said the most concerning issue is that Libre by Nexus doesn’t tell their clients that “every person has the right to a hearing with a judge to request their bond to be reduced.”
Libre sued CALA in the New York State Supreme Court alleging the company lost money after the organization “incited” clients to break their contracts.
Additionally, Mueller said in his affirmation the company might also be “engaging in coercive and fraudulent debt-collection practices, including telling consumers that they will be returned to federal immigration custody if they do not pay monthly fees.”
“That’s what they told us,” said Santana. “If we tried to cut or take off the bracelet, they could immediately contact ICE and have us sent back to detention."
Cortes said she never saw this happening in her office, but she said she had heard clients saying the same thing.
Univision asked Libre about all these allegations in the questions that were sent by email but the company did not reply.
Three former employees, including Cortes, sued Nexus Services in March alleging that company executives had recorded them without their consent on more than one occasion
In addition to this allegation, Libre is currently facing lawsuits by multiple clients and a GPS device provider. They are also being investigated by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
Contributions for anti-immigration lawmakers
From 2015 to 2017, Libre by Nexus has contributed to political campaigns of republican representatives that have supported tougher laws on immigrants, according to a analysis done by Univision News with data collected from FollowTheMoney.org, a website that keeps records of political donations.
In 2015, Nexus Services donated $5,000 to then-candidate David Albo. Representing Springfield in the House of Delegates of Virginia, Albo introduced a bill in 2007 that would allow local police to arrest undocumented immigrants, something only federal agents could do at the time.
In 2017, Nexus Services donated a total of $17,000 between nine republican candidates and five democrats. Every republican candidate voted, in 2017 or 2018, to pass the bill that would prohibit the establishment of sanctuary cities.
Rick Nagel, a former employee who is now suing the company, told Univision these contributions might be related to Nexus’ other business: bail bonds. Nagel said they donated to candidates that would support the bail bond industry.
Nagel said Libre does valuable work because it takes people out of detention “I’d say in a group of 20 clients, you’d probably have a majority saying that they were benefited with Nexus getting them out.”
“If you just look at the business model to make money, then obviously you need people detained. I think that’s a no brainer, right? Because if no one was detained, Nexus would be out of business,” Nagel said.
“With this new administration in Washington more and more people will be detained and there will be more space to detain people. With more detention centers, there will be more desperate people that will sign anything to get out,” Pilsbury said.
According to CALA’s director, Libre tries to give an impression of a company that is helping the immigrant community, “when they’re really trying to make tons of money making a private business out of the detention system.” Pilsbury said that Libre is an example of the privatization of the detention system in the United States.
“I think, personally, charging that amount of money for the monitor is exorbitant,” Nagel said. “I know, for a fact, that less money can be charged and a company can still make a profit because I’ve worked the numbers up just to see.”
Nagel narrows it down to a couple of questions: “Can you help folks get out of detention? Sure. But could you do it in a non-exploitative way? The answer is yes, in my opinion.”