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August 08, 2008

National Immigration Bond Fund

Kalman Zabarsky Boston University
Robert J. Hildreth, 57, is the public face of the National Immigration Bond Fund, a fledgling organization that helps immigrants swept up in Immigration and Customs Enforcement workplace raids post bonds.

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When federal immigration agents raided a Houston rag factory and took 166 suspected illegal immigrants into custody, a Boston philanthropist and multimillionaire was ready to chip in bond money to help the workers.

Robert J. Hildreth, 57, is the public face of the National Immigrant Bond Fund, a fledgling organization that helps immigrants swept up in Immigration and Customs Enforcement workplace raids post bonds.

The controversial fund has the backing of major immigrant advocacy groups and religious leaders, but has drawn criticism from anti-illegal immigration organizations.
Since spring 2007, the fund has paid more than $180,000 to bond out immigrants snared in ICE raids in California, Massachusetts and Maryland.

Word of the fund is spreading, but not quite fast enough for some immigrants caught up in the recent crackdown on businesses that hire illegal immigrants. In the past nine months, ICE has detained about 4,500 undocumented workers and 111 employers, according to ICE statistics.

Hildreth said he and bond fund leadership, which includes leading advocacy organizations such as the National Immigration Forum, decided about four months ago that the organization should broaden its reach across the country. It is now soliciting donations nationally, hoping to raise its profile and political clout to help lobby for immigration reform. So far, it has raised $200,000 for the national fund, but the money is going out as quickly as it comes in, organizers said.

On-the-ground support
The higher profile might have aided the bond fund during its recent outreach in Houston.


After ICE agents raided Action Rags USA, the Houston rag factory, on June 25, bond fund organizers struggled to find "on-the-ground support" to help mobilize the families of detained immigrants, Hildreth said. One of the principles of the fund requires detainees' families to make matching contributions, which helps ensure they appear in court, organizers said.

"I was very disappointed in Houston because we were ready to help," Hildreth said.

Maria Jimenez, a longtime Houston activist and special projects coordinator for the Center for Central American Resources, said local aid groups didn't learn about the fund until long after the raid. At least 74 of the 166 workers were released for humanitarian reasons within a week of the sweep.

"It wasn't until two weeks later that the attorneys got a notice the bond fund was available, we only had one person who was still being detained and whose family couldn't raise the bail money," Jimenez said.

Hildreth saw TV footage in March 2007 of workers picked up in an ICE raid in New Bedford, Mass., boarding a plane bound for Texas, where they were to be held before deportation.

"I was really ticked off," he said. "Within 24 hours, ICE decided to take them to the detention centers in Texas just to facilitate removing them as fast as possible. I thought that was unfair.

"If they stayed in Massachusetts, close to where we could have bonded them out, they could have gotten due process."

Hildreth called an attorney with Greater Boston Legal Services, which provides free legal assistance to low-income clients, to offer his help posting bonds.

Nancy Kelly, the managing attorney of the organization's immigration unit, took Hildreth's phone call, and remembers thinking it was "too good to be true." "It was amazing," she said.

Hildreth, the son of schoolteachers, said part of his motivation to help immigrants came from his father, a historian.

"One of his big themes was that the immigration story in the United States is vital to the health and growth of our country," he said. "He drilled that into me."

After graduating from Harvard University, Hildreth worked for the International Monetary Fund from 1975 to 1980, living in Washington, D.C., and La Paz, Bolivia. He returned to the U.S. and worked for major Wall Street firms until starting his own business in 1989, Boston-based IBS Inc., which buys and sells loans in
international markets.

"I've been involved in Latin America since college," he said. "I know many, many, many Latin Americans, including many, many Mexicans, so I have a personal friendship, a personal affinity."

"And," he added, "I am a devout Roman Catholic and a liberal."

In all, Hildreth said he paid $130,000 to help the New Bedford workers, and detainees' families chipped in $100,000, securing the release of 40 people, he said. He said none of them skipped bond.

The fund has infuriated some advocates for stricter immigration reforms, who have called it "traitorous" on Internet message boards.

Risk of losing money
Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which lobbies for stringent immigration controls, said many illegal immigrants historically have failed to leave the country as ordered by the government. The number of immigrants labeled as "fugitives" or "absconders" by ICE totaled more than 594,000 in October 2007, the most recent statistics available.


"These contributors better be prepared to lose a lot of money," Mehlman said.

Hildreth is frank about the bond fund's goal: to push for immigration reform that would grant legal status to illegal immigrants in the U.S.

"There's one more reason — besides humanitarian — that this bond fund was created and it's just as important. It's political," he said. "We hope that if we get a lot of history helping people in raids, plus a lot of contributions, even if it's only a buck, then we can really have a voice next year in the immigration debate."

The bond fund primarily helps people detained in workplace raids, but also occasionally takes on other immigration cases for humanitarian reasons. Hildreth helped a teenager who was housed in an immigration detention center for youths in Nixon, Texas, after the center was shut down amid allegations of sexual abuse by guards. After the center closed, one teenager's Texas attorney contacted the fund for assistance.

"We were able to find a family a pro bono lawyer, and convince a judge to let us post a $4,000 bond to get him out of jail and into a permanent situation," he said. "When the $4,000 comes back, we're going to offer that as a scholarship fund for him."

Posted by VisaLawyer at August 8, 2008 10:02 AM

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