The Nation: “The financial firm that cornered the market on jails”

The financial firm that cornered the market on jails

Arun Gupta, The Nation, August 1, 2016


Numi’s highest profits may come from jailed migrants. As Paul Wright, executive director of the Human Rights Defense Center, points out, “Large numbers of [jailed] people are deported to countries where they aren’t able to use the inmate debit cards.” The balance on these uncashed cards would be absorbed by Numi and the issuing bank through maintenance fees.

Numi is used in many cities with large Latino communities such as Houston, Las Vegas, Sacramento, and Phoenix, whose county jails are the initial detention facility for thousands of undocumented immigrants who are eventually deported. (In 2015 ICE deported 235,413 people, including thousands who had just completed sentences in state or federal prisons.) The number of inmates facing deportation is so high, Numi has a special blue ICE transfer card that it offers to jails for free.

Alejandro Villavaso Gonzalez, 48, is typical. He was picked up in Phoenix on May 25, 2015, for a minor traffic violation. Gonzalez had $2,100 in his pocket, pay he had just collected for himself and two coworkers for a home roofing job. He was booked into the Maricopa County Jail and the cash was loaded on a Numi debit card. He was transferred to an ICE facility and deported to Nogales on June 23—the result of a DUI conviction in California decades earlier.

Once in Mexico, Gonzalez was effectively penniless. The PIN he’d been told to use—his birth month and day—did not work. Gonzalez tried to withdraw funds seven times; each time the card was denied and charged $0.95. Eventually he sought help at a migrant center, which assisted him in resetting his PIN. He withdrew $460 in pesos, for which he paid $18.75 in fees—the fees are higher for international use—an amount equal to more than two hours of his wages. Rather than pay those fees for at least four more withdrawals, they contacted No More Deaths, a US-based immigrant rights organization. Cameron Jones, a volunteer, transferred the rest of Gonzalez’s money to a US bank and then wired it to a relative for a one-time Western Union fee of $20.

If Gonzalez had not sought out assistance, all $2,100 “would likely have been lost,” Jones said. “How many others aren’t so lucky?” Six months before Gonzalez’s case, No More Deaths issued Shakedown, a report documenting the ways money and belongings are seized from deportees. The report recorded 19 incidents involving debit cards, including cards issued by Numi. Volunteers aided migrants in recovering funds by calling English-language customer service, filing complaints in states where the Numi card is issued, writing letters to Numi Financial and its lawyers, and even crossing the border to cash out cards in order to recoup funds. Despite the intensive aid, No More Deaths calculated that an average of $27 per card, or one-third of the monies in these 19 cases, was lost to fees.

Without assistance, maintenance fees can suck accounts dry. In 2012, Enrique, an undocumented immigrant who lived in the United States for 20 years, was convicted in California on child-endangerment charges. After serving his sentence, he was given a Numi card with $100 of his money, transferred to an immigration detention center in Eloy, Arizona, and eventually deported to Nogales. Once there, a No More Deaths volunteer dialed into Numi’s phone system only to discover Enrique’s account was empty. “I am pretty sure the $100 he had on his card was eaten up in weekly fees while he spent nine months in Eloy,” the volunteer wrote.

Squatting on the top of a hill over the Tijuana River is the four-story Casa del Migrante. The prison-like concrete building is the first stop for hundreds of men deported to Mexico each month. Sitting in his office near the interior courtyard, administrator Gilberto Martinez says he and his staff starting noticing Numi cards in 2014. Since then he says, “We’ve seen hundreds of Numi cards. Maybe one in ten get any money. If they have less than $20 on the card, they throw it away.

My own canvass of deportees at Casa del Migrante and nine other Tijuana shelters revealed at least 10 who said they had received inmate debit cards. A few said they had lost about 40 percent of their money to fees, including two who started with more than $200. Some said they’d thrown the cards away in frustration when they couldn’t access their money.

Martin Quintana-Cerna, 28, was deported to Tijuana in April 2015 after serving a four-year prison sentence in Nevada with $9.90 on a Numi card—all he had. He appeared dazed, finding himself in an unfamiliar city in a country where he hadn’t lived since he was a child. His attempts to get pesos from an ATM in Tijuana were denied, costing him $3.45 in fees. He allowed me to check his account online. The remaining $6.45 was untouched, but it was effectively impossible for him to cash out at an ATM in Mexico given $4.95 for an international ATM fee, 3 percent for a foreign transaction, and the local ATM fee.

No More Deaths catalogued other reasons deportees were unable to use their cards. Most were given written instructions in English. Many cards had to be activated by calling an 800 number in the United States that does not work internationally. Spanish-speaking operators were rarely available on Numi’s customer-service line; English-speaking operators often refused to speak to a translator. Many deportees, told their PIN is their birthdate, didn’t realize the US practice is to put the month before the day, unlike in Latin America. Sometimes cards are secured to prison paperwork with a staple, and a puncture to a card’s magnetic strip can render it useless.