An image of Nefi Flores, an undocumented immigrant from El Salvador, is reflected in a window of his Los Angeles home. He and his wife have filed a lawsuit against Libre by Nexus, the company that helped bail him out of a detention center. (Stuart Palley/For The Washington Post)

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.

(Claritza Jimenez/The Washington Post)

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.”

Micheal Donovan, chief executive and co-founder of Libre by Nexus, talks about the company’s growth inside a mock courtroom at its headquarters in Verona, Va. (Norm Shafer/For The Washington Post)
‘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.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, they were repeatedly convicted of writing worthless checks to Virginia businesses and served short stints in a jail.

Donovan and Moore don’t try to hide their criminal records. Donovan often cites his own experience with incarceration as the inspiration for Libre by Nexus.

In 1999, after Donovan was charged with writing bad checks to four Northern Virginia hotels, he was unable to pay his $45,000 bond. He spent more than seven months in jail before pleading guilty to eight felonies and receiving time served, according to court records.

He cites those seven months as the beginning of his interest in the bond process and the criminal justice system.

“I went in with no criminal history,” he said. “Now I’m a convicted felon. No one wanted to hire me. I couldn’t even rent an apartment.”

Donovan said he turned his life around afterward. But a decade later, he and Moore, who declined to be interviewed for this story, were again accused of financial crimes. In summer 2009, as they volunteered on Democrat Mike Signer’s unsuccessful primary campaign for Virginia lieutenant governor, they rented rooms and office space under assumed names at a Williamsburg hotel and then skipped out on the $25,000 bill. They allegedly did the same thing in at least two other counties, according to police records.

After he and Moore served five months for the hotel incident, they launched an enterprise called Project Nexus. They helped post bond for people who couldn’t afford it, put those people in GPS ankle monitors and charged them a fee, although few actually paid it, Donovan said.

“We’d try to get their lives on track before they went to court for adjudication and sentencing, hopefully to be able to say to the judge, ‘Look, this person is doing much better. You don’t want to put them in jail,’ ” he said.

Although Donovan has described Project Nexus as a nonprofit organization, it never registered as one, a company spokesman acknowledged.

Donovan became an ordained minister in 2010, he said, and served as associate pastor of River of Life Ministries in Harrisonburg, Va., from 2012 to 2013.

“He really did connect with people,” recalled Cindy Carr, the church’s pastor. “He’s a storyteller.”

Both men also began working as lobbyists in Richmond on behalf of the bail bond industry. Donovan represented Bail USA, one of the nation’s largest bail bond companies, and he and Moore helped found the Virginia Bail Agents Association.

Among the bills that Donovan championed in the Virginia legislature was HB 728, which would have cut the number of defendants eligible for pretrial services, instead requiring them to post bond.

Critics called the bill a boon to bail bondsmen that would clog jails and cost the state money. When the proposed legislation was defeated, Donovan and Moore pushed another version in Colorado, where it appeared on the 2010 ballot as Proposition 102.

Donovan headed the “Safe Streets Colorado” campaign, warning a tea party rally about “government-run programs that released violent, heinous, criminal defendants from jail on your tax dollars.” One of the campaign’s ads featured a black-clad criminal breaking into a house and shooting a family.

Law enforcement officials denounced Prop 102, with the Arapahoe County sheriff calling it an “effort to line the pockets of the for-profit bond industry.” Voters overwhelmingly rejected the measure.

Donovan and Moore have stopped lobbying on behalf of others. They now employ their own lobbyists, Donovan said, including former Senate majority leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.). Lott declined to comment for this article.

Donovan said Libre is backing immigration reform, including congressional protection for the young adults known as “dreamers,” undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children by their parents.

“I employ lobbyists every day that seek to pass legislation that would put us out of business,” Donovan said. “I’m a bit of an enigma that way.”

‘The darkest place’

U.S. Border Patrol agents with a K-9 unit detain undocumented immigrants last year after they illegally crossed the U.S.-Mexico border in McAllen, Tex. (John Moore/Getty Images)

Donovan had been running Project Nexus for three years when he had an epiphany.

He was talking to a Salvadoran with a relative in an ICE detention center when he learned that the Salvadoran couldn’t pay 10 percent of the bond, as is common in criminal court. Instead, ICE requires immigration bonds be paid in full by someone with legal status in the United States. If an undocumented person tries to pay someone’s bond, then they, too, will be detained.

As a result, many undocumented immigrants turn to bail bond agencies. Because they are affiliated with surety companies registered with the U.S. Treasury Department, bail bond companies can post bonds with nothing more than a promise to pay if the person doesn’t show up for court. But few agencies were willing to post immigration bonds because they are riskier and the cases can drag on for years.

Donovan dropped what he was doing.

“We realized we needed to find the darkest place in the American justice system where the most help was needed,” Donovan said. “And that was immigration.”

It was a well-timed switch. Beginning in 2009, the number of pending immigration cases had begun to rise sharply, along with the average wait time for hearings. By April 2013, when Nexus Programs was incorporated, an influx of Central American refugees was driving this backlog to an unprecedented level.

There was huge demand for immigration bonds but little supply, and their cost was going up.

According to a Post analysis of ICE data, the average cost of a posted immigration bond has risen by more than 70 percent in the past three years, from $5,400 in fiscal 2013 to about $9,300 in 2016. Last year, 12 percent of the country’s detained immigrants — more than 42,000 — found a way to post bond.

Because of their felony records, Donovan and Moore aren’t allowed to be bail bondsmen. Instead, the company acts as a middleman, using the ankle monitors to reassure bond agencies that immigrant clients won’t run.

When an immigrant’s family pays Libre 20 percent of the bond amount to get the immigrant out of detention, Libre passes along 15 percent to the bond agency, keeps 5 percent and begins charging the immigrant $14 per day for monitoring. Libre rents its GPS devices for $3 a day, according to court documents filed in Georgia. The company said that figure was incorrect, but would not provide the cost.

There was no competition, although ICE itself contracts with a private company, BI, to monitor undocumented immigrants with GPS ankle bracelets instead of detaining them. The program, which has grown from 6,000 immigrants in 2013 to about 30,000 today, doesn’t cost immigrants anything. Instead, BI charges the government $4.41 per immigrant per day, according to a 2015 report by the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General. ICE spent about $50 million on the program last year.

An ICE spokeswoman said the agency has no relationship with Libre and would not comment on its business practices.

Eileen Blessinger first noticed Libre in early 2013 when Donovan began appearing in Arlington immigration court on behalf of detained clients.

“Donovan was dressed up like a priest in a full black robe and clerical collar,” recalled Blessinger, an immigration lawyer. At first, she didn’t give much thought to the minister and his company. “But then I found out what they were charging,” she said.

She and a criminal defense attorney, David Bernhard, went to authorities. Bernhard, who was just appointed as a circuit court judge in Virginia, asked Fairfax County police to investigate the company and said he had clients willing to wear a wire. Fairfax County detectives passed the case to Fairfax City police, who dropped it.

Frustrated, Bernhard sent an email on Sept. 18, 2013, to a listserv of criminal defense attorneys that was later forwarded to immigration lawyers. It listed Donovan and Moore’s criminal convictions and their mug shots.

A month later, ICE launched its own investigation into Libre, according to records obtained by the Legal Aid Justice Center through a Freedom of Information Act request and shared with The Post.

Immigration agents subpoenaed telephone and financial records for Donovan and Moore. They also met in September 2014 with Blessinger. She told them that her clients were “being taken advantage of by Nexus because of their situation,” but “was unable to state what Nexus was doing that was against the law,” according to an agent’s report.

“The contracts were signed between Nexus [and] competent adults,” the agent concluded. “The alleged victims . . . may be in a desperate position . . . but there is no evidence to show Nexus is violating any laws under the authority of [Homeland Security Investigations] to investigate.”

Allegations of fraud

The GPS device that Nefi Flores and other Libre clients wear until their immigration cases are resolved. (Stuart Palley/For The Washington Post)

A year after he first felt Libre’s fiber-optic band lock around his ankle, Nefi Flores thought he was nearly free of its grip and the suspicions it generated.

A bus driver had spotted it and called ICE. Neighbors assumed he was a criminal. A referee ordered him off a soccer field.

Flores learned to wear long pants to hide the device and thick socks under low-cut sneakers to avoid chafing. Above all, he learned to pay Libre by Nexus on time, lest its employees barrage him and his wife with phone calls.

With each payment, Flores felt he was closer to the day when he could take it off. By July 2015, he had paid the company more than $7,000 — nearly the full amount of his bond.

But when he asked a Libre employee for his balance, she told him it still stood at $7,500.

Flores was flabbergasted. When he threatened to stop paying, the woman allegedly told him he could be sent back to jail.

Flores sued Libre for fraud last May.

Now his allegations are being echoed by two Hondurans who have filed a class-action complaint in U.S. District Court in Northern California. Libre by Nexus, the new lawsuit argues, “preys on detainees’ vulnerability and limited understanding of English to foist crushing financial terms and GPS shackles on detainees.”

Asylum seekers Juan Quintanilla Vasquez and Gabriela Perdomo Ortiz, who live in Oakland, Calif., argue they were deliberately misled about what they call the “shockingly bad” terms of contract.

“Customers overwhelmingly possess limited or no ability to communicate in, or read, English,” the lawsuit says. “Yet virtually all ‘contract’ documents provided by [Libre by Nexus] are solely in English.”

Donovan said employees explain the contracts and that the company has always had forms available in Spanish, although it only began requiring employees to give them to Spanish-speaking clients last year. And he rejected charges that clients were told they would be turned over to ICE if they didn’t pay their fees.

“We do not threaten re-detention,” Donovan said, adding that employees who did so would be terminated.

Concertina barbed wire tops a fence in Santa Teresa, N.M., along the U.S.-Mexico border. President Trump plans to build a wall along the border, add more detention centers and speed up deportations. (Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg News)

Libre cited specific clients as examples of the company’s positive impact. One of them, José Guzmán, is a 42-year-old Honduran who spent 33 months in an ICE detention center near Los Angeles. He said he was unable to afford his $40,000 bond after being caught driving without a license. He already had a domestic violence conviction.

“I spent three Christmases without my kids,” said Guzmán, who learned about Libre in 2014. “I couldn’t care less if they put 10 grilletes on my leg so long as I got to be with my family.”

Guzmán said his immigration case remains unresolved, but the company voluntarily cut off his ankle monitor after 18 months, by which time he’d paid around $17,000 in fees.

Pierre Laflamme, a Canadian immigrant who lives in Mesa, Ariz., also praised Libre, calling the company “a blessing” after he was detained for a drug conviction and couldn’t afford an $8,000 bond. He said he understood the terms of the contract, but added that the $420 a month was “literally every penny we’ve got.” His immigration hearing is in August, yet Libre’s fees have left him unable to afford an attorney, he said.

“They told me about their pro bono legal program,” Laflamme said, “but when I called, they said, ‘Do you have any means to pay?’ When I said no, they sent me to an answering machine, and I never heard back.”

Libre’s fees often lead its clients to make painful, panicked choices.

Franklin Ortega García owned a small barbershop in Honduras until gang members began demanding a “war tax.” He fled to the United States in 2015 after refusing to pay, turned himself in at the border and asked for asylum.

After three months in a detention center, his sister-in-law paid Libre nearly $3,000 to get him out in July 2015. A company employee picked him up outside an ICE facility in Calexico, Calif., and warned him he could be sent back to detention if he didn’t pay the monthly fees, Ortega said.

But Ortega made only $150 per week working illegally as a barber near Houston. He was fired from a construction job when undocumented workers spotted his GPS monitor and worried he might attract ICE.

Donovan said Libre works with clients who are struggling, sometimes waiving fees. He also said that the company aims to remove clients’ GPS devices within six months to a year.

But Ortega paid for more than a year, he said, save for one month when a Libre employee let the fee slide. When he could no longer keep up with the payments, the company began calling his sister-in-law, who had co-signed his Libre contract.

Afraid ICE would soon be at his door or his sister-in-law would be forced to pay Libre instead, Ortega caught a Dec. 29, 2016, flight back to the same country where gangs had threatened to kill him.

Before heading to the airport, however, he borrowed a friend’s tools. Then he sliced off the GPS device that had haunted him for a year and a half and left it in the trash.

“They helped me get out of jail,” he said from Honduras, where he has been moving from one relative’s house to another to avoid the gangs. “But they only freed me so that they could imprison me all over again, and make me work for them.”

Cindy Hernandez works in the call center at Libre’s Virginia headquarters. The company expects its clients to double by year’s end. (Norm Shafer/For The Washington Post)

Libre disputed his allegations and provided a recorded phone call in which Ortega cited “personal problems” as his reason for leaving the United States. In that same call, Ortega told a company case worker that he had thrown away his GPS device, which Libre values in its contracts at $4,000.

“We will have to charge you for that, sir,” replied the case worker, who said he’d talk to his supervisor about Ortega’s case.

‘We’ll be here for you’

When the charger for Leyli Martinez-Perez’s GPS monitor burst into flames, the number she called was not 911. It was Libre by Nexus.

When she arrived at Conroe Regional Medical Center near Houston an hour later, it wasn’t in an ambulance, but a car driven by a Libre employee.

And when the 25-year-old Salvadoran spoke to doctors about the hand she burned pulling the power cord out of the device, it wasn’t through a hospital interpreter, but her Libre account manager, Wendy Cruz.

“Whenever it was time for an examination or something, Wendy told me what to do,” said Martinez-Perez, who spent the night and part of the next day at the hospital receiving treatment. And when Cruz brought a legal document to her bedside, Martinez-Perez again did as she was told, signing away her right to sue the company for her injuries. In exchange, the company agreed not to charge her for six months or put another GPS monitor on her, she said.

Martinez-Perez now regrets the deal. She works in a laundromat, where sometimes the steam makes the scar on her hand sting. Meanwhile, hospital bills for about $3,000 keep arriving, and Cruz is not answering her calls, she said.

“They told me, ‘We’re going to pay all your medical bills. Whatever you need, we’ll get it for you. We’ll be here for you,’ ” she said. “But when I got out of the hospital, they were nowhere to be found. They were only there when they wanted to charge me.”

Cruz referred questions about the incident to Libre, which said the fire was caused by faulty wiring, not its device. The company provided photos of the scorched electrical outlet and the charred charging device.

Other Libre clients also complained about their GPS monitors, which they said heat up when they are being charged — an allegation Libre denied.

Gabriela Perdomo Ortiz, a pregnant asylum seeker from Honduras, is one of two plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit against Libre by Nexus. (Carlos Javier Ortiz/For The Washington Post)

Jesus Escobar-Villalta, a 22-year-old asylum seeker from Honduras, said his GPS device began to bite into his ankle not long after his release from ICE custody. Soon, a blister morphed into an infection that swelled his ankle, Escobar-Villalta said. But when he called Libre, the company told him not to go to the hospital because the doctors would cut off the device, he recalled.

When his brother finally took him to the hospital, doctors did cut off the device.

“I could have lost my foot,” he said. “That’s what the doctors told me.”

Like Martinez-Perez, Escobar-Villalta said he signed a document agreeing not to sue Libre in return for a few months of fee forgiveness. And like Martinez-Perez, he said the company hadn’t come through on its promise to pay his $1,500 hospital bill.

The company said in an email that its device was not to blame for his hospitalization and that “if the client’s hospital bill wasn’t paid, it was because we never received a copy.”

A week after Escobar-Villalta came home from the hospital, Libre employees showed up with another device.

“I’m going to have to wear the grillete forever,” he said. “Now it’s on the other foot.”

Still fearful

For Nefi Flores, his Libre ordeal could be over in a few months.

His fraud lawsuit is scheduled to go to trial in May. Libre has countersued, claiming breach of contract after Flores stopped sending the company money in August 2015.

Although he’s no longer paying, he still wears the GPS device after nearly three years, afraid that he could be arrested for damaging someone else’s property or re-detained if he cuts it off.

Flores, who hopes to receive asylum at an immigration hearing in August, works two jobs, often seven days a week, as a valet and in a lamp factory.

He’s so busy that he sometimes forgets about the device on his ankle, only to catch it on the door of a car he’s parking or bang it on a piece of machinery.

Every night, when he undresses, the sight of it is a reminder of his uncertain future in the United States. And every morning, when he swings his legs out of bed, he feels its weight.

Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.