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Welcome To America: Here’s Your Electronic Shackle

Carlos fled to the United States from Honduras seeking safety from gang violence. His story is all too common

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Carlos arrived at the Jacob K. Javits Federal Building in Lower Manhattan on a recent Thursday. He wore a heavy black hoodie, black jeans, and construction boots, his shoulder-length dreadlocks pulled back. He passed through two security screenings then rode up to the ninth floor and found his name on a list.

Carlos, 29, isn’t in the United States legally and doesn’t want his real name used for fear it could jeopardize his ability to stay here. He was at the federal building for a scheduled hearing for his immigration case. As the Trump administration has shifted immigration judges toward the border in an effort to speed deportations of immigrants on first arrival, more and more people arriving for their removal hearings in New York are learning on check-in that no judge is available to see them.

Carlos had a judge assigned for his hearing, so he entered a courtroom on the twelfth floor. Born in Honduras, he doesn’t speak English, but the court offered translation services. He checked in with the clerk, who told him to wait outside for his name to be called. He hadn’t been able to find a lawyer to represent him yet. People who were represented by lawyers would have their cases heard first. Everyone else would come afterward.

Carlos’s wife, who we’ll call Sofia, was also born in Honduras, but she came to the United States legally as a child and is now a U.S. citizen. Sofia speaks English, and as they waited for Carlos’s name to be called, she translated as he told the story of how he came to be here last year.

“I was running from something bad,” Carlos said. “I was afraid to lose my life.” He had lived his entire life in La Ceiba, a city of about 200,000 on the Caribbean coast of Honduras, working odd carpentry, construction, and furniture jobs. That all changed on September 20, 2014, when he witnessed a shooting. There was a party at his sister’s house, and someone in the backyard was celebrating by firing a gun in the air. “My brother-in-law went out and told them to stop — there are kids around, the bullets are going to come down,” he said. “The man who was doing it said, ‘What are you going to do about it?’ and shot him five times in the arm and neck. The man who shot him was a big gang member. I was on my way into the house when it happened, and I saw the shooting.”

Carlos was frightened. His brother-in-law survived, but now the family were witnesses, and the gang member knew it. After several weeks, Carlos’s brother-in-law was released from the hospital, and he and Carlos’s sister immediately left town and went into hiding. When Carlos next saw the shooter, the man told him there was a problem between them and only one way to make it right: Carlos must persuade his sister to let the gang sell drugs out of her lunch shop. This would end badly, Carlos knew, but he didn’t dare refuse the gang member. “Let me think about it,” he said.

The next time their paths crossed, the man put a knife to Carlos’s belly and asked him, “Have you thought about it enough yet?” At both this meeting and the previous one, Carlos says, police officers were nearby, but none of them intervened to protect him. Carlos and the rest of his family scattered from La Ceiba, and he moved to a bigger city to the west, San Pedro Sula. But here he encountered the gang member a third time. He decided the only way to be safe was to leave Honduras. On April 4 of last year, he set off north for the United States, where he hoped his half-sister in Houston could help him get settled.

Stories like this are common among people from the Northern Triangle countries of Central America — Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador — says Betsy Plum, director of special projects at the New York Immigration Coalition. “There are thousands upon thousands of immigrants who are really refugees, coming from this region, fleeing an epidemic of violence.” According to estimates by the Migration Policy Institute, there were roughly 337,000 undocumented people from Honduras living in the United States in the first half of this decade, of whom between 10,000 and 11,000 live in New York City. The violence in Honduras has continued to escalate in recent years.

Carlos traveled north through Guatemala and Mexico by bus and train, and on foot. At long last, on May 15, 2016, he made it to Mexico’s northern border. But as he and a handful of others he was traveling with approached the banks of the Rio Grande, they ran into a dozen men with guns. “They stopped us,” he says. “They were Zetas. They called their boss and said, ‘We found some people trying to cross, what should we do with them?’ The boss told them, ‘Try to negotiate with them. Those who won’t negotiate, kill them.’ ” Carlos and the rest of the group were taken to a warehouse while the Zetas contacted their families, demanding ransom for their release. The Zetas wanted $4,000 to let Carlos go.

After fifteen days, Carlos’s family managed to scrape together $1,500, he said, and the Zetas released him after he promised to pay the balance once he made it into the United States and found employment.

“This is an absolute commonplace reality that nearly every immigrant coming up through Mexico faces,” Plum says. “The Zetas are one of the most opportunistic criminal organizations on the planet, and they have moved from a focus on smuggling drugs to now also finding ways to exploit vulnerable migrants.”

The Zetas hoped that Carlos would make it to the U.S. so he could start paying them. But on the same day he was released, Carlos was arrested by Border Patrol agents as soon as he’d managed to cross the river. “I went to la hielera,” he said, using the Spanish word for “icebox” to refer to the notoriously cold and uncomfortable temporary detention facilities used to house people found crossing the border. “You’re all wet, and they put you in the freezer. I lost any notion of time, because there’s no night and day. But it wasn’t a long time, not even a week.”

Carlos is clearly uncomfortable talking about his time in detention. “I try to take it out of my mind,” he said. “It was very traumatizing. I had never been handcuffed before.” From there Carlos was transferred to the Val Verde County Correctional Facility, where people facing immigration charges were sprinkled into the general population of accused criminals. After ten days there, he had his first appearance in court, where his bail was set at $12,000. In the weeks and months that followed, he was moved between five different detention facilities in Texas.

Finally, in early August of last year, Carlos’s half-sister put together some money to hire a lawyer, who managed to get Carlos’s bail reduced to $8,000. Then she paid $2,700 to Libre by Nexus, a controversial but fast-growing Virginia-based company that posts bail for people in immigration detention and fits them with ankle-bracelet monitors to track their movements. Libre by Nexus charges the people it posts bail for $420 a month to rent the bracelets.

Immigrations and Customs Enforcement has been using ankle bracelets to track people for years, but it doesn’t charge undocumented immigrants for the pleasure. Libre by Nexus, a young for-profit company unaffiliated with the government, is in the business of making money off the people wearing its bracelets. Its clients pay 20 percent of their bond, plus fees, up front, of which the company keeps 5 percent, passing on 15 percent to the bail bond agent who actually posts the bond. (Libre by Nexus’s founders, Richard Moore and Michael Donovan, are both convicted felons and so are barred in many states from operating a licensed bail bonds operation.) According to a contract filed as evidence in one of several lawsuits against Libre by Nexus, the company rents the bracelets from a provider, Omnilink Systems, for $3 a day, though Libre by Nexus disputes that figure. Libre by Nexus then charges its clients $14 a day for the GPS bracelets. Multiply that profit margin across an estimated 12,500 customers to date, and one can see why the company is in rapid expansion mode, with 22 offices in cities ranging from Tacoma to Orlando to New York.

Libre by Nexus did not respond to repeated emails and telephone calls regarding the Voice’s request for an interview.

When he was first outfitted with the bracelet, Carlos was just happy to be able to enjoy some modicum of freedom. “I understood what I was getting into,” he told the Voice. “It was worth it. Being in detention is very bad.”

Carlos had hoped to stay with his half-sister, but she was in the midst of separating from her partner and relocating to New Orleans, and said she couldn’t put him up. Since his release on bail didn’t carry travel restrictions, Carlos came to New York, where a friend from Honduras was living in the Bronx and offered to help him get settled.

Last September, he saw Sofia at a party. The two had met once before, years ago, when she was visiting her family in Honduras. Now they began dating, and Carlos eventually moved in with her and her three daughters in a two-room Section 8 apartment in Bushwick. They were married this past May. Aside from the $500 a month they pay in rent, the monthly fee for the bracelet is their biggest expense. Carlos isn’t legally allowed to work while his case is pending, though he picks up odd painting and construction jobs when he can. Sofia, a home health aide for more than a decade, makes around $15,000 a year. “There have been times when we’ve had to decide between paying our other bills and paying for the bracelet,” she said.

But beyond the expense, the bracelet is inconvenient and humiliating, Carlos said. When Carlos first met Sofia’s children, she didn’t want them to see the bracelet, lest they think he was a criminal. When he’s on a job, he changes his clothes in the corner, out of sight of his co-workers, ashamed of what they will think of him. The bracelet must be charged regularly, and there is no replaceable battery, so for at least two hours a day Carlos must sit next to an electrical outlet. If the signal weakens, he gets a call from Libre by Nexus. If he fails to pay his monthly charge promptly — as has happened on a few occasions — the bracelet begins to vibrate conspicuously.

Carlos can’t help but feel that the bracelet is just one more way for opportunists to profit from his vulnerable situation. “It’s like being kidnapped all over again,” he said. “It’s like being in jail.”

Compared to many undocumented immigrants’, Carlos’s prospects look relatively good. He recently applied for asylum, on the basis of the threats and violence he fled in Honduras. Many immigrants don’t know that they are required to file their application for asylum within their first year in the United States, and miss the deadline (applying for a waiver after that is difficult). But it’s far from a sure thing that Carlos will win asylum. Proving the truth of the events he describes taking place in Honduras is not easy, and even if he can, immigration courts tend to privilege claimants fleeing violence more clearly tied to state actors — civil wars, government torture cells, and the like.

“The courts don’t always realize that when you’re talking about these gangs, you’re talking about paramilitary groups that are working in collusion with corrupt governments, or in the power vacuum they’ve left empty, and that they’re able to operate because the justice system is completely hollowed out,” says Juan Carlos Ruiz, a Lutheran pastor who helps lead the advocacy and services group New Sanctuary Coalition of New York City. “The added irony is that in these countries, the weapons, the gangs, the destabilization — they were all exported from the United States in the first place.”

Because Sofia is American, Carlos has another route to apply for permanent residency, but that route is expensive — lawyers regularly charge several thousand dollars to shepherd a married couple through the process — and by no means certain. Because they were married so recently and new marriages are often viewed skeptically by officials, Carlos and Sofia have been advised to wait at least another six months before they consider this option. “It isn’t what movies would have you think, that you marry an American and you live happily ever after,” Plum says. “There are many factors that can make the process extremely difficult.”

Carlos does have a legal right to remain in the United States while his deportation proceeding and asylum application are pending. But as reports of newly aggressive immigration enforcement and summary deportations proliferate, the couple feels uneasy.

“With the election of Trump, I think it changed a lot,” Sofia says. “I’m scared by the things on the TV. When [Carlos] doesn’t call me, or answer my phone calls, I’m scared. Maybe they grabbed him.”

“People here have an idea of immigrants as criminals, even though we’re not,” Carlos said. “Give people a chance, because these opportunities that exist here don’t exist other places.”

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