Originally published by The New Yorker
The contours of the U.S. immigration crisis are shaped by public policy, but at its edges operate a startling array of private profit-making entities, both legal and illicit—the smugglers shuttling people across the border, the prison corporations building and staffing the detention centers, the venders providing telephone and commissary and health-care services inside those detention centers—the list goes on. One of these, a company called Libre by Nexus, springs free detained immigrants who can’t afford their bond—with some conditions. The process is depicted in the video above.
In the past five years, median bond amounts for immigration cases have increased by fifty per cent, to seventy-five hundred dollars. For those who can’t afford to pay, Libre by Nexus acts as a sort of middleman, connecting detainees with licensed bond companies that front the money. The catch? Clients must rent from Libre a G.P.S.-enabled shackle, which costs four hundred and twenty dollars per month, and wear it for the duration of their case. As of 2019, the average immigration case lasts twenty-five months. Over that period, someone with a seventy-five-hundred-dollar bond would pay Libre nearly thirteen thousand dollars in rental and other fees. (The vast majority of the four hundred thousand people detained by ice each year are deemed automatically ineligible for bond and remain in custody until they win their cases or get deported.)
Critics accuse Libre, which, as its C.E.O., Mike Donovan, told the Washington Post, makes thirty million dollars per year, of preying on the vulnerable. Multiple states and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau have probed its business practices amid allegations of fraud. (The company has denied any wrongdoing.) Hallie Ryan, a legal-aid attorney in Virginia, says that many detainees don’t understand Libre’s contract or its implications. As she sees it, the clients are “desperate to get out of detention to rejoin with their families. They’ll agree to anything, and they do.”
The video follows two recent immigrants, Gerson and Sonia, both of whom wear a Libre shackle. The device is always there, when Gerson laces up his blue Converse sneakers in the morning or stops to itch his ankle while kicking a soccer ball. When Sonia plugs in its charger, it buzzes faintly, like the sound of an electric razor coming from another room, as she walks into her kitchen, carrying the cord in her hand. “One always feels like a prisoner to this thing,” she says.
In a cheery commercial for the company, a spokeswoman implores viewers to “call today and reunite your family tomorrow.” In a clip recorded in a cozy living room with a fire crackling in the background, Donovan speaks of his “commitment to justice” and thanks clients “for the honor of being able to serve you.” It’s a startling contrast to the gloomy reality presented by Gerson and Sonia. Then again, wearing an ankle monitor certainly beats detention—Libre has reunited them with their families. The vast, complicated ecosystem of immigration enforcement grows increasingly overburdened and, for those churning through its gears, increasingly confusing. Though it is easy to vilify a company profiting in the process, it is perhaps wiser to interrogate the policies that create the demand for its services by forcing desperate people to choose between bad and worse.