VERONA, Va. — Justin Kongueni Matadidi’s first days in America were a far cry from the safe haven he had envisioned when he fled the Congo of Africa, fearing for his life.
Rather than basking in the glow of a new start, Matadidi was arrested by Immigration Custom Enforcement officials in Florida because of “faulty paperwork,” and detained in jail for six frightening months that, he said, almost broke him.
The inhumanity of jail, the threat of violence and, significantly, the hopelessness of ever being free — or being sent back to certain death in Africa — made it hard to eat or even sleep. Neither could his two childhood friends who also escaped a death warrant in Kinshasa because of their opposition to the ruling political authority, they said.
America was his haven — or so he thought. He never imagined he would need to make a $20,000 bail — or have collateral to serve as credit for bond — just to seek the safety of asylum.
“[Jail] was scary,” Matadidi recalled through translator Jeanine Memmbila of the Congo. “Couldn’t sleep or eat. I had no money. I had no hope. I didn’t know what to do. I was running from death in Africa, but if they delivered me back to the people of my country, it would have been my death. So I was scared everyday at what could happen to me.”
After spending six months in detainment, from December 2016 through June 2017, Matadidi learned of Libre by Nexus, a rural Virginia-based firm that rapidly has evolved into a powerful — and controversial — immigration bond company.
Libre by Nexus (libre means free in Spanish) posted the $20,000 bond, and Matadidi, who now lives in Atlanta, and his friends, were freed. And he said his world was saved.
“I had no family (here), no collateral,” he said through Memmbila. “I cried everyday. Libre came in like a mother. They gave me a new life.”
When he walked out of jail, the first person to greet him was Annette Padilla, a Libre Nexus case worker. “Matadidi was in tears,” Padilla recalled. “(He) came out crying, pinching (his) cheeks and saying, basically, ‘Oh, my god. This is not real.’ I picked up all three of the friends on different days and their reaction was all the same. It has been a long journey for them.”
Padilla sad she nearly was in tears, too, during the company’s mandatory “pick-up” to help the now-free client got settled.
“It made me feel proud of what I do,” she said.
Similar stories have been played out thousands of times by Libre clients. Those who cannot afford bail found Libre Nexus to be a sort of justice angel that bailed them out just when hope had been all but lost.
This action is not without a cost — or controversy. In three years, Michael Donovan’s company has changed the landscape of immigration bonding by bonding out around 12,500 people across the country and requiring them to wear a GPS tracking device on their ankle at $120 a week until the bond is paid off.
Detractors — and there are many — say the company, which employs more than 200 people in 20 locations across the country, is taking advantage of a flawed immigration system that has court cases backed up for months, making millions off of those who could not afford bail. Donovan said, simply, that freedom allows the released the opportunity to live and work and pay for the tracking device, as opposed to rotting in jail. And he added: “We don’t care about profit. We believe profit doesn’t have to control the day.”
Matadidi, 30, who was an engineer in the Congo, said of the GPS payments: “The money is nothing for the life they saved.”
While many have considered Libre as saviors, there are others, especially traditional bail bond companies, who bemoan the tactics. Some criticize that the company’s clients often struggle for work, making it a struggle to pay the $480 a month for the tracking device. There is no interest charge tacked onto the GPS monitor; clients wear it (and pay for it) until their bond is satisfied or case cleared.
There have been complaints that Libre employees have threatened clients with a return to jail or detention if the GPS payments are not made. Erik G. Schneider, a former bounty hunter who is Libre’s chief risk management officer, refuted that claim.
“We’ve never sent anybody back to jail — or threatened to send anyone back,” Schneider said. “The reality is that we want them out of the bracelets. That means they have paid it off and are going on with their lives. That’s why we work hard to help clients in any way.”
Donovan insists his and co-founder Richard Moore’s inspiration for the company was forged during their own harrowing jail experience. While in college, Donovan wrote two checks to a northern Virginia hotel that were returned. He ended up being arrested on six felony charges, including grand larceny and forgery, among others.
He spent seven months in jail because he was unable to make bail. He was freed only after pleading guilty, effectively killing his dream to become a lawyer.
But the loss of a dream inspired another.
Seven months in jail “was my college,” Donovan said. “(Libre by Nexus) is all rooted in my jail experience. I’m trying to save the 19-year-old me. … There needs to be bail reform. Our model is smarter about how we make bail available. This is not rocket science. The GPS system is insurance, but it allows our clients to live and work and to not be in jail. Mass incarceration is encouraging jails to destroy people. We’re happy to help, but horrified that we have to.”
Meanwhile, many of Libre’s employees have experienced jail, are immigrants or are the children of immigrants — factors that the company espouses as virtues because they relate to those they help.
Julio Rodriguez, a case worker at Libre in Verona, Virginia, who is from Honduras, said he fled his country through El Salvador and Guatemala and spent three days in the desert before making it across the U.S. border in Texas.
That experience gives him sensitivity to the clients he first meets on the phone as they seek help to get out of detainment.
“I take the job personally,” Rodriguez, 30, said. “I was brought from the shadows into the world. So I know what the clients who call us are seeking, and I can be there for them the way I know they need me to be there.”
Sergio Anselmo, another Libre by Nexus employee, said he recalls crossing the border from Mexico as a small child. He and his family worked in Florida, picking oranges and cucumbers before moving to North Carolina. He gained U.S. citizen but one of his brothers did not and was deported back to Mexico last year.
“If we had known about Libre by Nexus then, we probably would have had a better outcome,” Anselmo said. “But I go on my ‘pick-ups’ and see people we have freed, people I have spoken to on the phone, knowing their story and how scared they are. This is the perfect way to help people going through what I went through.”
Still, the company has many critics. Some clients have lodged lawsuits, saying they did not understand they were to pay monthly rate for the tracking device and they thought the GPS fee would go toward the bond owed.
“We are rescuing many from a system that is designed to keep them in detainment,” Schneider said. “Most cases are asylum-seekers. They don’t have money. They don’t have collateral. They want freedom; that’s why they came to America. We don’t arrest people. We give them relief.”
Libre is fighting to protect its profile. It is suing BuzzFeed in a $5 million defamation case for reporting, among other things, that Libre was under investigation by ICE.
While all this is going on, the company says it has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars into a Civil Rights division, housing for felons and pro bono lawyers to adequately represent clients in court — and other projects that are aimed at giving clients a fair shot at freedom.
Additionally, Donovan, a former lobbyist, hires lobbyists to fight for immigration reform — odd for a company that exists because immigration system is faulty.
“We’ve created a paradigm shift in immigration release,” Donovan said. “People on both sides are the problem. No one has anything to gain by freeing people. Jail is dehumanizing. But the system promotes warehousing to control large numbers of people. … We want immigration reform. We want the problem fixed. We are the disruptors. And we aren’t done yet.”