Detained in a sweep? He'll help post bond
By Susan Carroll | Houston Chronicle
August 13, 2008
HOUSTON — When Immigration agents raided a Houston rag factory and took 166 suspected illegal immigrants into custody, a multimillionaire Boston philanthropist was ready to chip in bond money to help the workers.
Robert Hildreth, 57, is the public face of the National Immigrant Bond Fund, a fledgling organization that helps people swept up in workplace raids by agents of the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement post bonds.
The controversial fund has the backing of major immigrant advocacy groups and religious leaders but has drawn criticism from organizations that oppose illegal Immigration.
Since spring 2007, the fund has paid $180,000 to bond out immigrants snared in ICE raids in California, Massachusetts and Maryland.
Word of the fund is spreading but not fast enough for some caught up in the recent crackdown on businesses that hire illegal immigrants. In the past nine months, ICE has detained some 4,500 undocumented workers and 111 employers, according to agency statistics.
Hildreth said he and bond fund leadership, which includes advocacy organizations such as the National Immigration Forum, decided about four months ago that the fund should broaden its reach. It is now soliciting donations nationally, hoping to raise its profile and political clout to help lobby for Immigration reform.
Hildreth saw television 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."
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 son of schoolteachers, Hildreth said part of his motivation to help immigrants came from his father.
"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.
Hildreth, who worked for the International Monetary Fund from 1975 to 1980, started Boston-based IBS Inc. in 1989. The firm trades in loans in international markets.
The immigrant bond fund has infuriated some advocates for stricter Immigration reforms, who have called it "traitorous" on Internet message boards.
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.