Investigators in at least two states are examining the business practices of a Virginia-based company accused of preying on detained undocumented immigrants, officials say.
Libre by Nexus helps post bonds for people being held in immigration detention centers while they wait for their cases to be heard in backlogged courts. In exchange for their freedom, immigrants sign contracts promising to pay Libre $420 per month while wearing the company’s GPS ankle devices.
Those contracts have been the subject of lawsuits and allegations of fraud by immigrants who claim they didn’t understand them.
Although an Immigration and Customs Enforcement inquiry three years ago concluded that the company was not breaking the law, Libre is now being scrutinized in at least two states, according to officials at three different agencies, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid jeopardizing the investigations.
“Thousands of families rely on Libre by Nexus’ services to bring hope and opportunity to the vulnerable immigrant community,” the company said in a statement. “Soaring immigration bond prices have forced immigrants to languish behind bars for extended periods of time...Nexus has helped reunite families with loved ones detained in immigration centers, creating a better path forward for the immigrant community. This important work does not cost taxpayers anything, as costs are paid by the recipients of the services. This stands in stark contrast to the hundreds of millions of dollars taxpayers pay to detain these immigrants.”
The probes come in the wake of a March 9 Washington Post article that detailed the struggles of Libre clients to pay the monthly fee for the device. Most said Libre employees threatened them with being returned to ICE custody if they didn’t pay.
The company denied those allegations, saying its contracts were clear and consensual and that employees did not threaten clients.
“I care about our clients,” chief executive Mike Donovan said at the time. “It would be awesome to not have to charge them any money, but that’s not really the system we live in.”
On Thursday, a member of Congress introduced legislation targeting companies that help bond people out of detention in exchange for GPS monitoring and monthly fees.
Rep. Norma J. Torres (D-Calif.), who introduced the “Stop Predatory Bail Contracts Act,” said the legislation was aimed primarily at protecting undocumented immigrants who turn to companies like Libre for help in getting out of ICE custody.
“Many of them are victims . . . fleeing very violent communities, coming to our border, seeking asylum,” she said. “They are desperate, and out of desperation, they are jumping into contracts they don’t truly understand.”
Torres said she had received complaints from her constituents in Southern California about Libre by Nexus, also known as Nexus Services.
Libre by Nexus calls itself the “only hope” for detainees who cannot afford their bond and don’t have a car or home to put up as collateral. The company — with more than 6,500 clients, 200 employees and yearly revenue of $30 million — acts as a middleman, using GPS monitoring instead of collateral to persuade bond agencies to post bail for detainees.
In February, two Honduran immigrants filed a class-action complaint against the company in U.S. District Court in Northern California, arguing that Libre “preys on detainees’ vulnerability and limited understanding of English to foist crushing financial terms and GPS shackles on detainees.”
A different lawsuit that made similar claims against the company was settled last month in Los Angeles County.
Torres said her bill goes beyond Libre by Nexus to target what she called an “exploitative” industry.
“Today it’s Libre,” she said. “Tomorrow it’s someone else.”
The bill would not prevent companies like Libre from doing business, Torres said. But it would prohibit them from charging clients more than the cost of their GPS monitoring, which, according to court documents, is less than $100 a month. Libre disputes that figure. Torres likened the bill to existing limits on payday lending.
Immigration advocates praised the bill.
“Were this bill to become law it would certainly outlaw Libre by Nexus’s current exploitative business model,” said Simon Sandoval-Moshenberg of the Virginia-based Legal Aid Justice Center, who has been a vocal critic of Libre by Nexus.
The legislation would also apply to companies using GPS monitoring in connection with criminal bonds.
The immigration bond industry is booming and expected to grow even further as the detention of undocumented immigrants is expected to increase under President Trump.
More than 42,000 immigration bonds worth nearly $400 million were posted in fiscal year 2016, according to ICE statistics.
The vast majority were paid in cash — normally by detainees’ family members — but that percentage is falling. Bond agencies posted more than 8,000 immigration bonds worth nearly $100 million in fiscal year 2016 — more than double the number and triple the amount in 2013, according to ICE statistics.
Much of that growth was fueled by Libre by Nexus.
As the immigration bond industry has grown, the average cost of a posted immigration bond has risen by more than 70 percent, from $5,400 in fiscal 2013 to about $9,300 in 2016, according to a Post analysis of ICE data.
Torres and Sandoval-Moshenberg both cited soaring immigration bond prices as a factor spurring the rise of companies like Libre by Nexus.
“We could obviate the need for them to even exist by having an immigration bond system that actually takes into account somebody’s ability to pay,” Sandoval-Moshenberg said. “A bond is not supposed to be unpayable.”
He said he hoped the bill would benefit from a recent nationwide movement to abolish cash bail, including in Maryland.
Rep. Luis V. Gutiérrez (D-Ill.) and Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) have signed on as co-sponsors, according to Torres’s office.