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Illegal immigrants arrested in federal raids have a new ally. A Boston financier is launching a national fund that would help many pay their bail. The idea is controversial among those who support an immigration crackdown, but backers say the program helps everyone get their day in court. NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports.
JENNIFER LUDDEN: The idea for the bond fund began early last year, when nearly 400 undocumented immigrants were arrested at a leather factory in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Robert Hildreth didn't think much of it until he saw TV images of the workers being loaded onto airplanes.
Mr. ROBERT HILDRETH (National Immigrant Bond Fund): 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, and this did not seem right.
LUDDEN: 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 asked what was needed. They told him bond money, so Hildreth gave it, some $200,000 in all that let 40 people get out of detention.
Mr. HILDRETH: Bond is important because it starts the whole process of realizing the rights that you are guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States.
LUDDEN: Mainly the right to obtain a lawyer. Immigrants are not entitled to a court-appointed lawyer for deportation proceedings but often rely on the pro-bono services of advocacy groups.
The problem is that when they're in a remote federal detention center thousands of miles from family, that becomes 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 Robert Hildreth couldn't let go of.
Since New Bedford, he's helped immigrants arrested in several states, bailing out nearly 100 people so far. One of them is Luis Eduardo Delgado(ph), 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.
Mr. LUIS EDUARDO DELGADO (Immigrant): (Speaking Spanish Spoken)
LUDDEN: Without bond, he says, I couldn't have continued caring for my family. They had no idea what had happened to 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 hopes his effort will boost support for a large-scale legalization of immigrants, and his bond fund hasn't gone down well among those who oppose that.
Ira Mehlman is with the Federation for American Immigration Reform. He has no problem with private efforts to bail out immigrants but says footing bail for illegal immigrants is risky.
Mr. IRA MEHLMAN (Media Director, Federation for American Immigration Reform): 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 for their court dates.
LUDDEN: Still, so far organizers say not a single person has absconded. Backers admit many 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 it could be helpful in convicting abusive employers.
The National Immigrant Bond Fund already has about $200,000. Organizers hope to raise that to half a million.
Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Washington.
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