Curbelo to Host Immigration Forum Sponsored by Company That Profits Off Deportation

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Update: Six hours after this story was published, an organizer for the event said the talk had been canceled due to "unforeseen circumstances" with "some of our panelists."

The Virgina-based company Libre by Nexus has an obvious financial incentive to make sure the United States continues deporting increasing numbers of immigrants: It offers steeply priced bail bonds to people trapped in immigration court. Over the past few years, Libre by Nexus has been accused of exploiting immigrants trapped in the nation's kangaroo-court deportation system, sending broke and defenseless immigrants into debt, and "preying" on undocumented people to make a quick buck.

Tomorrow at Florida International University, Miami-area Rep. Carlos Curbelo will host an immigration panel discussion sponsored by the company.

Curbelo — along with what a flyer for the event calls "leaders from the private, public, and academic sectors" — will speak at the panel from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Libre by Nexus has been promoting the event on its social media, and the company's CEO, Mike Donovan, will serve as one of the panelists and get to spout his opinions about the immigration sector.

According to BuzzFeed, Donovan, now a Universalist reverend, has a lengthy criminal history, including convictions for grand larceny, writing bad checks, forgery, and obtaining money under false pretenses. (Libre told BuzzFeed that the charges stemmed from one bad-check-writing arrest when Donovan was 19.)

(The event is also sponsored by FWD.us, a pro-immigration group founded by Silicon Valley technocrats, including Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates.)

Spokespeople for Curbelo did not immediately return messages from New Times. But this is far from the first time the congressman has aligned himself with extremely shady businesses: His campaign-donation record includes hundreds of thousands of dollars from all sorts of predatory capitalists, including Koch Industries ($15,000), Comcast, ExxonMobil, and FPL parent company Nextera Energy ($12,500 in donations apiece), the Florida private-prison giant GEO Group ($11,000), and at least $10,200 from Big Sugar kingpin Jose "Pepe" Fanjul.

So it's a hilariously bad idea that a group of Democratic fundraisers announced yesterday that it'll begin fundraising for him as some sort of bipartisan show of solidarity.

Curbelo is set for a contentious 2018 reelection effort after voting to repeal Obamacare. His district voted heavily for Hillary Clinton in November, and he has long been touted as one of the most vulnerable GOP representatives in Congress. Democrat Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, largely unknown, announced this week she will run against him, but she doesn't live in Florida's 26th Congressional District. However, Curbelo doesn't live there either.

According to FiveThirtyEight's congressional vote tracker, Curbelo has voted for President Donald Trump's agenda 84 percent of the time in 2017.

All that being said, it would be gross for Curbelo to align himself with Libre by Nexus even if he weren't running for reelection. The company has long been called a leech on defenseless people that exists thanks to the nation's sprawling, broken immigration-court system. According to the Washington Post, Libre had bailed more than 12,500 people out of immigration courts as of March — for a price.

There's already a huge debate over whether Immigration and Customs Enforcement should be able to operate its own jail network at all — and, likewise, over whether the entire concept of cash bail is a predatory system that discriminates against poor people and empowers scummy bail-bond services. Justice-reform advocates from both political parties have backed efforts to ban cash bail across the nation in the past few years. Most big-city jails, including those in New York and Philadelphia, are crammed with people awaiting trial who cannot afford to post bail.

The same is true for immigration jails, which are packed with overwhelmingly poor, undocumented workers. For $420 per month, immigration defendants can pay Libre to bail them out of jail and place an ankle monitor on them. But Libre has been accused multiple times of misleading inmates on which services they're paying for, and for threatening to send people back to jail if they can't make monthly payments.

In May 2016, Nefi Flores, an immigrant from El Salvador, sued Libre for fraud. Flores fled gang violence in El Salvador, but when he met U.S. Border Protection agents and asked for asylum, border agents placed him in deportation proceedings instead, according to the Washington Post's Michael E. Miller (a New Times alum). Flores said he wanted to join his wife, who was living in Los Angeles.

According to the suit, Libre handed Flores a stack of papers in English, which he doesn't speak, and demanded he sign the papers. According to the suit, Flores said he was under the impression the $420-per-month payments would go toward paying off his bail debt, but instead, Libre pocketed the money as a fee, Flores claims.

Libre is also the subject of a class-action lawsuit in California over a host of similar predatory-business and forced-labor charges.

In October 2015, U.S. Congresswoman Norma Torres, a Guatemalan-American from California, sent then-ICE Director Sarah Saldana a letter demanding the agency look into "the possible exploitation of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers by Virginia-based bail bond company, Libre by Nexus."

Her letter reads:

As reported by La Opinion and Univision, Libre By Nexus has contacted detainees at ICE detention centers, offering to cover the cost of their bond, which can be thousands of dollars, so detainees can remain with their families while their case is adjudicated. However, there is a catch to this offer: Detainees are forced to make hundreds of dollars in payments to the company and wear GPS monitors to ensure repayment. This offer is understandably attractive to detainees, who are desperate to be released to their families while they await adjudication by an immigration judge, but accepting the offer can end up costing detainees more in the long run.

Libre By Nexus markets itself as a service to reunite immigrants with their families. Its website shows a picture of a smiling family of four and claims to invest in our clients and their families. In reality, this appears to be a firm taking advantage of a people in a vulnerable situation, profiting from individuals with limited resources, and undermining the basic human dignity of these detainees. It is appalling to me that Libre By Nexus or anyone else could be allowed to exploit individuals coming to the U.S., during what is likely the most difficult period of their lives, and mask its business practices as a service.

ICE's investigations were later closed due to a lack of evidence, according to documents published by BuzzFeed.

BuzzFeed also spoke to multiple Libre critics last year. Nexus Services also runs a nonprofit charity arm, Nexus Caridades ("caridades" is Spanish for "charities"), that offers pro bono representation in immigration court. But critics who spoke to BuzzFeed say they worry Nexus attorneys might be incentivized to stretch out immigration cases longer so that Libre by Nexus can suck more money from customers. (Nexus says the two companies work independently from each other.)

All of this raises big questions about the sort of people who have Curbelo's ear. The congressman paints himself as a centrist — he openly believes in human-caused climate change, a rarity for a GOP lawmaker — and sits on multiple bipartisan legislative groups aimed at tackling sea-level rise, health care, and other controversial topics. But just because something is labeled "bipartisan" or "centrist" doesn't make it inherently moral, and Curbelo needs to answer whether he thinks it's OK to prop up an extremely shady bail-bond company that preys on America's most defenseless people.

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