A handful of companies are making millions off of ankle monitors strapped to undocumented immigrants in ICE custody. The makers pitch the monitors as an alternative to being jailed, but are they simply another form of bondage? Reporter Ryan Katz looks at what life is life while wearing one of these monitors. He untangles the complicated web of ICE, immigration bail agent companies, and the attorneys fighting them.
70 Million is made possible by a grant from the Safety and Justice Challenge at the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. The 70 Million podcast is a production of Lantigua Williams & Co.
Montage: “Here I am with the judges and attorneys and, you know, police officers…”
“You can have the most beautiful resume and they’re still going to label you as a felon.”
“I wanted to be able to, to dig in, roll up my sleeves and figure out what could be done about this issue.”
“You’re not letting us be human, like, you’re not letting us just be regular girls.”
“For 20 years all I heard was shut up inmate. And now all of a sudden I have a voice.”
Ryan Katz: Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, is the federal government agency tasked with enforcing the country’s immigration laws. When ICE tries to deport a person without legal status, often it puts them in so-called “detention centers.” These are jail-like facilities located throughout the country. ICE says that in order to get undocumented folks to show up for their court dates, it needs to incarcerate them. But ever since detention expanded in the 90s, immigrants have complained of the poor conditions inside.
I’m driving to a park in Lodi, CA, a town of about 60,000, an hour south of the state capital of Sacramento. I’m here to meet Floricel Liborio Ramos.
(Ryan and Floricel introduce themselves in Spanish)
Floricel is short, in her late 30s. It’s a little windy, so we climb into my car to talk — one of those old audio reporter tricks to reduce noise.
Floricel: I describe myself as a woman immigrant, single mother of three young kids. Jennifer Bravo, Michael Bravo, Daisy Bravo. They’re my life, my world, my reason for existing.
Floricel was born in Mexico, part of an indigenous people called the Huichol. She says she came to the US after her life was threatened by a drug cartel that has been seizing her people’s land for years.
Floricel: I’ve lived here for twenty years already. My roots are here. I consider this my home. I try to help people that I can help, and living one day at a time.
She says she loves going to the park, getting breakfast with her kids, and especially going to church.
Floricel: “Un día orando, le dije a mi Señor, ‘tu el alfarero, y yo el barro soy.”
This brings us to one Sunday in March of last year.
Floricel: We went to eat breakfast at IHOP, and from there, go to church. When we finished eating, we left and outside, immigration was waiting for me.
It’s unclear how ICE found Floricel. She does have a criminal record and sometimes local law enforcement works with ICE to locate undocumented folks. Regardless, when ICE finds someone like Floricel, an ICE officer – not a judge or elected official – makes the initial decision about what to do with the person.
Denise Gilman: It’s really just mostly what an individual ICE officer is feeling in a particular moment.
This is Denise Gilman, Director of the Immigration Clinic at the University of Texas Law School.
Gilman: It varies a lot by geographical jurisdiction, so it was just sort of what the culture and a kind of rule of a particular office is when they’re making those custody determinations.
This is simplifying a bit, but an ICE agent has three main options. They can deport the person immediately, they can let them go, or they can detain them.
Gilman: Immigration detention has expanded dramatically over the last decade or so. And we’re now at a level of about 400,000 migrants in detention in a year.
Advocacy groups have pushed for reform ever since the 90s. They point to the sometimes terrible conditions inside detention centers. Dozens of lawsuits accused guards of physically and sexually assaulting detainees. And they argue, being undocumented is a civil offense, not a criminal one.
Gilman: In fact, the detention centers where most of these individuals are held feel and look very much like prisons. Some of them are prisons.
But the government does allow certain alternatives to detention. Like, check-ins over the phone or at ICE offices, and GPS ankle monitors. Turns out these are cheaper, at about $4 on average, compared to $130 per day to house an adult in detention. In an email, an ICE spokesman said that 99.8% of court hearings by people using alternatives had been attended. That means that in nearly all cases, alternatives worked just as well as detention.
Gilman: To my mind, most people who are put on these ankle monitors are folks who would be very likely to appear for their immigration court hearings in any case.
A popular alternative to detention among activists is community supervision. That’s when social workers help the immigrant find housing, transportation, and show up for their court dates. In a report, ICE said that program’s compliance rate was 100%. But the Trump Administration stopped the program in 2017, arguing it wasn’t effective.
Floricel: Detention centers are very dark places.
In March of last year, Floricel Liborio Ramos wasn’t thinking about policies or alternatives to detention. All she knew was that she was detained at the West County Detention Center, a county jail with eleven hundred beds, near Oakland. About 200 immigrants were housed there at any given time.
Floricel: The people that end up there, we suffer a lot. We’re treated badly by guards, there’s discrimination. You wake up and every bed is filled. I’d wake up and look around. Everything is white. The blankets are white, the beds are white. I’m like, ‘wow, we’re in a morgue.’ It’s a very sad nightmare.
Some of the detention centers are owned and operated by private prison companies. But many are local jails that rent beds to ICE. Like the one Floricel was in, which brought in $6 million annually for the county. At the time, ICE relied on three local jails to detain immigrants in all of Northern California.
But in 2016 the Department of Homeland Security – the agency that oversees ICE — told it to rely less on local facilities because, “County jails are, in general, the most problematic facilities for immigrant detention.” Local activists started pressuring lawmakers to stop doing business with ICE. And one of their main causes was Floricel. She spent months and months in detention.
Protest outside immigration court: Hi everyone, so we’re here to support Floricel and her family. And something that we…
The government argued Floricel should stay in detention because of two DUIs on her record. That she was a danger to society. But her attorneys argued that Floricel’s three kids needed her, especially her youngest, who has special needs.
Protest: What do we want? Free Floricel! When do we want it? Now! Free Floricel! Free Floricel! Free Floricel!
Finally, after nearly a year of being away from her kids, a judge allowed Floricel out of detention.
Floricel: When my attorney told me, I started to cry. Wow, I couldn’t believe it. It was incredible happiness.
But that happiness quickly wore off. When I first talk to Floricel, she’s been out of detention for a month.
Floricel: This period of my life is a bit difficult.
There was a catch. In order to get out of detention — back to her children — she agreed to wear a GPS ankle monitor.
Floricel: Here, I’m free, but I carry this. I can’t really be free because of this machine I have 24/7. Day and night. I’m not totally free.
ICE says it needs to track Floricel to make sure she doesn’t run away.
Floricel: It’s illogical. How can they think I’m going to run away? I’ve lived here for 20 years. My kids are here. I would never put my children’s lives at risk. Where would I go?
Here’s how the arrangement works. Floricel is allowed to live with her family in exchange for wearing the ankle monitor. And once a week, an agent checks in on her to make sure the monitor is working.
Floricel: It’s a black bracelet. I take out the battery. I have to take it off to charge and then put it in.
Floricel says she has to charge the ankle monitor every few hours.
Floricel: I can’t work. I left detention, but I’m practically still imprisoned in my own home. I realized that sometimes I feel like a robot. Without the battery, I can’t walk. I have to charge it until the light turns green.
After the first time we meet, I asked Floricel to record herself as she goes about her daily life.
Floricel: I’m going to have to be very careful with the bracelet because it’s uncomfortable because I can’t bathe easily. When I put it on it hurts. It’s really ugly. I’m going to put on my pants. Ahh. So tight. The other foot is easy because there’s nothing stopping my leg from going in. OK, now the apparatus is charging. I get nervous, feel ashamed because I have to go around with that sound.
Floricel says she’s still not free. It’s possible she’ll have to wait for years to get the monitor off. Her next hearing is in three months.
Floricel’s case is not unique. Judges in the greater criminal justice system use ankle monitors too, often as a condition of probation or parole. According to the latest numbers from the Pew Research Center, more than quarter of a quarter million people are tracked by ankle monitors at a given time. And among them are more than 36,000 immigrants. For many like Floricel, this “alternative to detention” is just another form of bondage.
Immigrants with ankle monitors often complain they stop working, itch, and even cause pain and bruising. So the question becomes: who do they hold accountable for this? When there’s an issue with the ankle monitor, who do they call?
The company that runs the program is a subsidiary of the GEO Group, which owns and operates dozens of immigrant detention centers around the country. So it makes money off detention and the alternatives to detention, both coming and going.
US taxpayers paid nearly $61 million dollars to GEO for electronic monitoring in the Fiscal Year 2017. That’s out of a total of more than a billion for detention as a whole. And, based on government estimates, that’s likely to go up in 2018.
GEO isn’t the only company profiting from immigrants wearing ankle monitors. For more on that, let’s meet Armando Sandoval.
Armando is soft-spoken, with a shaved head and mustache. He came to the US with an uncle when he was two and is undocumented. We sit in his apartment in San Jose with his wife, Mayela, and their son, Jose.
Mayela Sandoval: Nice to meet you.
Mayela, nice to meet you, as well. ICE detained Armando in 2016 and a judge set his bond at $18,000. There was no way Armando could afford that. So he sat in detention for months. After a little while, he got desperate.
Armando Sandoval: From there I just decided I just had to bail out because, it was, when you’re detained, they give you fast courts and they don’t give you time, you know, for you to gather all your — what you need to fight your case.
Armando believed he had a better chance at fighting deportation by getting out of detention. The problem is, most bail companies don’t give loans to immigrants. That’s because immigration bail works differently than traditional bail. Normally, in a criminal case, you can put, say, 10% of your bond up front. Then you and the bail bond company promise to pay the rest if you abscond. But in immigration court, you have to pay the full amount at the beginning, all of it.
Bond companies worry that immigrants will pay only 10%, then skip out, and they’re left with the bill. So when a friend in detention told Armando of a company that would help him post bail anyway, he took his chance.
Libre by Nexus commercial in Spanish: In Libre By Nexus we reunited more than two thousand families last year. We specialize in…
It’s called Libre By Nexus, an immigration bail agent company. The name, Libre, is Spanish for free. In this TV commercial, the presenter is in front of a happy Latino dad with his son on his shoulders.
Libre by Nexus commercial in Spanish: We can help you now! Call right now at 1-888…
Armando’s wife Mayela called the number and after months in detention, Armando stepped outside of the facility’s walls. But instead of meeting Mayela, he was greeted by a company representative.
The Libre guy drove him to a nearby hotel. They went up to a room, where this guy Armando had never met before strapped an ankle monitor to his leg. Armando signed some paperwork and they parted ways. Only after did Armando reconnect with his wife.
Armando, and immigrants like him, pay $420 per month to Libre By Nexus. As part of the deal, he agrees to wear the ankle monitor while his case winds its way through court. And at first, Armando wasn’t paying much attention to it at all.
Armando: I didn’t really care about it because I was already out, I was excited. And then from there on that’s when I started seeing the changes.
Changes like the dirty looks people gave him at the grocery store. Like the time a neighbor called his landlord on him. Then there was the time he lost the monitor. The Libre By Nexus employee said it would cost $4,000 to replace it.
Armando: I got shocked at that moment. I was like what?
In the end, Armando found the monitor. But at times it hasn’t worked properly. All the while, Armando and Mayela are still paying $420 per month to Libre.
Mayela: I’m like wow, we’ve been paying for the ankle monitor. It hasn’t been working but we still have to pay for it. That’s kinda crazy.
In total they’ve paid over $13,000 to Libre By Nexus. And here’s the kicker: none of it goes towards Armando’s bond. It’s just for renting the ankle monitor, for being out of detention. He still has to pay the full bond.
Studies show bond amounts tend to be arbitrary and really vary by judge. We do know that the average bond amounts for immigrants have increased over the past two decades. Most immigrants can’t afford to pay them and sit in detention for months. So a company like Libre fills the gap.
Gilman: The role that Libre By Nexus plays is a very, very troubling one.
This is Denise Gilman, from the University of Texas, again.
Gilman: So it can lead to a real, a spiraling downward in the economic situation for the migrant and his or her family.
Libre By Nexus did not reply to request for comment on this story. But the company is the subject of investigations by three states for abusive and fraudulent business practices. A few months after I first talk to him, Armando tells me he was able to get his ankle monitor off.
Armando: I feel like I have more freedom. But at a certain moment I don’t because I know I still gotta be paying the bond.
And he’s still waiting for his case to be decided. The San Francisco immigration court has an average wait time of 3 years. That’s much shorter than Chicago, San Antonio or Atlanta.
Armando’s next court date isn’t until 2019. But Floricel has an important hearing coming up. The night before, I meet her at her home. We sit down in her living room so she can bring me up to speed on her case.
Floricel: I have no idea what’s going to happen tomorrow.
The hearing the next day is to evaluate Floricel’s fear of returning to Mexico. Her attorneys will call a Mexican expert on indigenous peoples to testify. If they can convince the judge she’ll be harmed if she’s deported, then she gets to stay.
Floricel: Of course I’m a little nervous because I don’t know how the judge is going to react tomorrow.
Floricel says, Huichol people are often discriminated against in Mexico.
Floricel: We’re indigenous people. Our clothing and language are different. My ancestors spoke in a dialect.
We’re not free to walk in the streets. Sometimes they see us and they criticize us, shame us.
In the past few decades, the Zeta cartel has forcibly taken a lot of Huichol land to grow drugs in rural areas. When she was a teenager, Floricel says her uncle protested the cartel’s taking of his land. One day she watched as gang members killed him and then, as she ran away, they shot at her. She was able to escape but feared for her life.
The morning of her court hearing, Floricel records herself. Here she is on her way to the train.
Floricel: We’re walking to the train station. I’ve taken a few hard steps and the bracelet is hurting me, it feels really heavy.
Floricel rides on the train from Lodi to San Francisco. I meet her downtown, outside the large stone immigration court building. She’s surrounded by dozens of activists who are there to support her.
Floricel: I want to give huge thanks from my heart for being here and supporting me at this hearing.
After Floricel finishes, I enter the courthouse but get stopped by ICE security.
I just tried to get into immigration court and I couldn’t bring my recorder in so I’m gonna go and to put it back in my car and then go up and watch Floricel’s hearing.
The courtroom has four rows of wooden benches packed with supporters. Judge Valerie Birch and a translator sit up front, a giant logo of the Department of Justice behind them. At one table is the attorney for the government. At the other, Floricel’s two attorneys confer among themselves. Floricel sits next to them, looking worried.
Her attorney starts the questioning. The expert testifies how both Mexican police and cartels have taken land and human rights away from indigenous peoples like the Huichol. During most of it, Floricel keeps sighing and staring at the ceiling. The most dramatic moment comes after an hour, when a strange sound starts disrupting the hearing. Judge Birch stops the whole thing.
Judge Valerie Birch: “What is that noise?” Silence. Floricel looks embarrassed.
“LOW BATTERY, RECHARGE UNIT. LOW BATTERY, RECHARGE UNIT.”
“It’s her ankle monitor, judge,” Floricel’s attorney says.
The judge asks the expert to continue, but every 30 seconds or so he’s interrupted. “LOW BATTERY, RECHARGE UNIT.”
Judge Birch stops the hearing once again. She sends an audience member to see what they can do. Finally, she comes back with a charger.
Floricel connects the monitor, still around her ankle, to the wall.
The expert testifies for a full three hours. Then both sides give concluding statements. Floricel’s attorneys argue: if she’s returned to Mexico, she’ll be in danger. The government’s attorney claims she could live in a different area of Mexico and be just fine. Plus, she says, Floricel’s a danger to American society with her two DUIs. The judge gives no visible reaction, and says she’ll issue a written decision later. Court adjourns.
After, I catch up with Floricel. She has a question for her attorney, Jehan Romero.
Floricel: What’s going to happen with the ankle monitor?
Jehan Romero: Usually you have to have the monitor for six months until we can ask them to take it off. But in your case I don’t know because it was a condition of your bond.
Sometimes, an immigrant chooses to pay for and wear an ankle bracelet to get out of detention. In other cases, the ankle monitor is a condition of their release. I ask her: so what now?
Floricel: Now we wait. We’ll wait for the judge’s decision. To stay here with my kids.
Floricel’s attorney expected to hear a decision within a week or so. But months go by and she hears nothing. The Trump Administration institutes a policy of “zero tolerance.” Meaning it prosecutes every single undocumented immigrant it can find. And it starts separating immigrant parents from their children. However, as part of a lawsuit by the ACLU challenging the family separation policy, ICE agreed to use more alternatives to detention, like ankle monitors, in the future.
Another policy change happens while Floricel waits. Attorney General Jeff Sessions releases new guidelines for immigration judges around the country. He says that reasons like domestic violence or gang violence are not valid grounds for seeking asylum in the United States. It’s unclear how this could affect Floricel’s chances of getting a favorable ruling from the judge.
Phone ringing: “Bueno?”
Floricel: Hola, Ryan, como estas?
Finally, when we talk four months later, Floricel gets very excited when she picks up the phone.
Floricel: I have good news, Ryan! Today I talked with my attorney.
I’m expecting to hear that she heard back from the judge. That she got her ankle monitor off or won the right to stay in the United States. But it turns out, her attorney was letting her know that an article Floricel wrote was appearing in a magazine.
Floricel: She told me a magazine story about me is coming out on Thursday.
She’s heard nothing about her case.
Floricel: No, the judge still hasn’t given the decision.
The judge could deny Floricel’s appeal. In that case, she can appeal again. But if the judge sides with Floricel, the government could appeal, too. As of this recording, Floricel still has no idea whether she will get to continue her life in the United States, where her children were born, or return to a country that could put her life in danger.
From Northern California, I’m Ryan Katz for 70 Million.
Mitzi Miller: Special thanks to Nujavi Ramirez for voicing Floricel. We have a brief update. At the time of Ryan’s reporting, ICE was relying on three local jails to detain immigrants throughout Northern California. Then, in June, the detention center near Floricel in Sacramento County canceled its contract with ICE. A month later, in July, public pressure led the Contra Costa Sheriff, in the San Francisco Bay Area, to do the same. Now, the closest detention center to the Bay Area is in Yuba City, two hours to the north.
For more information, visit 70millionpod.com. We’re an open-source podcast, so we invite you to use our episodes anywhere they might be useful. You may rebroadcast parts of or entire episodes without permission. Just please drop us a line so we can keep track.
70 Million is made possible by a grant from the Safety and Justice Challenge at the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
The podcast is a production of Lantigua Williams & Co. It’s edited by Jen Chien and mixed by Luis Gil. Our associate producer is Oluwakemi Aladesuyi. Our marketing specialist is Kate Krosschell. Our resource guide writer is Amy Alexander. Juleyka Lantigua-Williams is the creator and executive producer. I’m Mitzi Miller.
- Floricel Liborio Ramos;
- Armando Sandoval
- Mayela Sandoval
- Denise Gillman, Director of Immigration Clinic at University of Texas Law School
- Editor: Jen Chien
- Audio Engineer: Luis Gil
- Associate Producer: Oluwakemi Aladesuyi
- Marketing Specialist: Kate Krosschell
- Resource Guide Writer: Amy Alexander
- 70 Million Creator and Executive Producer:Juleyka Lantigua-Williams
- 70 Million Host: Mitzi Miller
- Episode 7 Reporter: Ryan Katz
Making Contact Staff:
- Host: Monica Lopez
- Producers: Anita Johnson, Salima Hamirani, Monica Lopez
- Executive Director: Lisa Rudman
- Audience Engagement Director/Web Editor: Sabine Blaizin
- Outreach & Distribution Assistant: Dylan Heuer
- “Ervira,” Blue Dot Sessions (open)
- “Symphony No. 2 in F Minor,” Percival Pembroke (open)
- “Svela Tal,” Blue Dot Sessions
- “Year of Glad,” Lifetrap – Johnny Ripper remix (credits)
- “Rise,” Meydan (podcast version break)