NOEL KING, HOST:
All right, here in the U.S. there was a lot of anger over the Trump administration's policy of separating families at the border. Now, that prompted a remarkable flood of donations to bond funds. The policy has ended, but people are still giving money so that detained immigrants can post bonds and get their freedom. NPR's John Burnett has the story.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Pollsters found that about two-thirds of Americans oppose the White House policy of splitting families to deter other illegal border crossers. Some citizens have taken action. They've written checks to help free immigrants who are in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The way it works is when an immigrant is in detention, an ICE officer or an immigration judge can set a bond for their release. It's similar to the bail system in criminal justice. The bond is supposed to ensure the migrant shows up for their court hearings. Pilar Weiss is director of the National Bail Fund Network. It includes 18 funds around the country used exclusively to free immigrants in detention. And she says they're flush these days.
PILAR WEISS: Family separation has certainly captured people's attention across the country. And so we see a real uptick in the number of people who are contributing to bond funds and legal representation. People are horrified, and they care.
BURNETT: The mother of all bond funds is without a doubt a group called RAICES in San Antonio that provides pro bono immigrant legal services. In June, a San Francisco-area couple started a Facebook campaign to raise a mere $1,500 for RAICES to bond out a single migrant mother or father. The effort went viral and topped out at more than $20 million with half a million donors. At one point, contributions were streaming in at $4,000 a minute.
Kate Lincoln-Goldfinch, an Austin immigration attorney, says RAICES recently put up the money to get two of her clients out of detention. She remembers the day the fundraiser took off. Her staff watched the Facebook page in awe.
KATE LINCOLN-GOLDFINCH: First, it's over a million dollars. Then it's $5 million. It's $12 million. And then it became clear it was headed toward $20 million. We were just, like, oh, my gosh. In some ways, I don't envy the organization to figure out how to manage all of this money.
BURNETT: To date, RAICES has paid out nearly $600,000 to bond out close to a hundred immigrant parents, most of whom were separated from their children. According to Syracuse University, bond amounts set by immigration officials have grown 50 percent in the last five years from a median of $5,000 to $7,500 today.
NATE ROTER: It's certainly gratifying when we can get people out of detention that previously would have had a really hard time raising all that money.
BURNETT: A social worker at RAICES named Nate Roter is in charge of their bond fund. He says the fund is so abundant that RAICES can also pay for the transportation for a family to reunite or relocate, chip in for housing and even help out other bond funds around the country.
ROTER: The hard part is working with ICE and when ICE sends us a rejection for no apparent reason.
BURNETT: Roter says bond officers at the San Antonio ICE office frequently give various reasons why they cannot complete the process for bonding out immigrants the same day, and it's frustrating.
ROTER: I certainly think there is an element of passive-aggressively making the job more difficult for us, but it's hard to pinpoint why. I would love to know.
BURNETT: Immigration and Customs Enforcement says bonds are set on a case-by-case basis, taking into account an undocumented immigrant's flight risk and immigration and criminal history. The agency says rules for bond payment are clearly drawn and inflexible. Last month, RAICES went to Washington with its pot of money and offered to write a check for $20 million to ICE to bond out every migrant parent of the 2,500 children separated at the border. They never got a response from ICE. John Burnett, NPR News, Austin.
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