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.
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.
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, 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.”