A Boston financier is helping launch a national fund to bail out immigrants arrested in federal raids. The idea is controversial among those who support an immigration crackdown, but the plan's backers say everyone is entitled to their day in court.
The idea for the bond fund began early last year, when nearly 400 undocumented immigrants were arrested at a leather factory in New Bedford, Mass. Robert Hildreth didn't think much of it until he saw TV images of the workers being loaded onto airplanes.
"What shocked me was that within 24 hours, one half of those arrested, 200 people, had been whisked away, to Texas, to send them back out of the country as soon as possible," he says. "And this did not seem right."
Hildreth had made a fortune trading Latin American bonds during that region's debt crisis in the 1980s. In the aftermath of the New Bedford raid, he saw an opportunity to give back. He called a local advocacy group and was told bond money was needed. So Hildreth gave some $200,000 in all, which allowed 40 people to get out of detention.
"Bond is important, because it starts the whole process of realizing the rights you are guaranteed by the constitution of the United States," Hildreth says.
One is the right to obtain a lawyer. Immigrants are not entitled to a court-appointed lawyer for deportation proceedings, but often they rely on the pro-bono services of advocacy groups. The problem is that when they are in a remote federal detention center thousands of miles from family, the situation is a logistical nightmare.
One defense lawyer says the common practice of moving illegal immigrants across the country has created an "access-to-justice crisis." It's an issue Hildreth couldn't let go of.
Since the New Bedford incident, he has helped immigrants arrested in several states, bailing out nearly 100 people so far. One of them is Luis Eduardo Delgado, who was arrested in June as part of a raid on a Maryland painting company. Delgado says there was no way his family could have paid the $2,500 bond.
"Without bond," he says in Spanish, "I couldn't have continued caring for my family. They had no idea what had happened with me, but this way at least my children can see me in person."
Now, Hildreth has joined with advocacy groups to launch the National Immigrant Bond Fund, and they're soliciting donations. Immigrants must come up with half the bond, and, as one backer puts it, no help will be offered to anyone deemed a danger to the community.
Hildreth says he hopes his effort will boost support for a large-scale legalization of immigrants. His bond fund hasn't gone down well among those who oppose that, however.
Ira Mehlman, of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, says he has no problem with private efforts to bail out immigrants. But, he says, footing bail for illegal immigrants is a risky venture.
"If you consider the fact that many of these same people have spent large amounts of money to get smugglers to bring them into the country in the first place, forfeiting their half of the bond probably isn't going to be a major deterrent to not showing up to their court dates," he says.
So far, organizers say, not a single person has absconded.
Backers acknowledge that many of those bailed out may not have a right to stay in the U.S. in the end, but they say some could qualify for asylum or could be helpful in convicting abusive employers.
So far, the National Immigrant Bond Fund has about $200,000. Organizers hope to raise that to $500,000.