Ronnie's Kids

Today, 'amnesty' is a dirty word. So what happened to the immigrants given a fresh start by Reagan in 1986?

Her father continued to work in restaurants, but her mother went to school to become a home health aide, a job she is still doing. When Edith’s father died last year, the Villavicencios were living in a two-family home in Bushwick they had been able to purchase. (Edith and her kids live upstairs, and her mom and brother live downstairs.)

The Villavicencios’ journey is not atypical. According to a study on the ’86 amnesty by the pro-immigrant Center for American Progress, “The real wages of newly legalized workers increase by roughly $4,405 per year among those in less-skilled jobs during the first three years of implementation and $6,185 per year for those in higher-skilled jobs.” The liberal think tank recently released a report arguing that a new amnesty would lead to “an increase in net personal income of $30 billion to $36 billion, which would generate $4.5 billion to $5.4 billion in additional net tax revenue” and “generate consumer spending sufficient to support 750,000 to 900,000 jobs.”

This occurs not just because workers come out of a shadow economy, but also because people like Edith’s mother begin to invest in their own education so that they can get better jobs. UCLA’s Velasquez Institute argues “legalization also creates higher household investments in family-wide education, boosting college-going rates among children, as well as creating very high rates of home ownership.”

Reagan relit the torch and signed the amnesty bill in '86.
Reagan relit the torch and signed the amnesty bill in '86.

Immigration attorney Kleiner contends that home sales would also boom after legalization of immigrants. Fighting the myth that illegal immigrants are wholesale freeloaders on the system, he points out, “Immigrants earn money. They don’t invest in a house when they know they could get deported,” but, he says, such investments are among the first things they do after they become legal citizens.

The Villavicencio kids certainly took on the mantle of education: Edith went to Brooklyn College, while her sister (now a public-school teacher in Queens) went to LaGuardia, and her brother went to Hunter.

But it did take Villavicencio more than a decade to graduate. Spurred by her own life as an immigrant, she majored in political science and became an activist. She left school to become a full-time organizer for three different unions before getting her current job as a field delegate for SEIU 32 BJ and finishing her degree.

“Immigrants work really hard,” she says with some annoyance at media hysteria in some quarters. “Our family, my friends—we all work really hard.” In fact, she says, it was while she was working with women in laundries as their field rep that she began to understand her own mother.

“Working in the laundries is the worst,” she says. “It’s so hot, and it’s very exploitative.” At one industrial laundry in Brooklyn, where she was trying to “fight for the women to get water—just clean, decent drinking water on the job—the manager spit in my face.”

Villavicencio considers herself a full-fledged American and says she can’t picture living in Mexico ever again. But she does, of course, closely identify with immigrants, and when she met those women in the laundry “who were working in a place so hot, so far from their kids—I could see my mother in them,” she says. She recalls thinking about her own mother leaving her as a little girl. “It was only then,” she says, “that I began to understand.”

* * *

Episcopal priest Noel Bordador is coming out publicly for the first time. He’s not coming out as a gay man—that’s something he did when he was first aware of his sexuality in the ’80s. But at an event being held by the National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance, he’s coming out as something many people wouldn’t assume: his once being an illegal immigrant and becoming a U.S. citizen because of the Reagan amnesty.

There are any number of reasons why Bordador doesn’t fit your average Lou Dobbs stereotype of the undocumented. In addition to his being a gay Filipino Episcopal priest, he’s also a licensed social worker and holds three graduate degrees.

Bordador didn’t come to the United States illegally—at least, he didn’t mean to. He was only 14 in 1979, when his father sent him and his 11-year-old brother to live with their aunt and uncle in Queens to go to school. But he arrived on a tourist—not a student—visa, and his aunt told him, “We’ll just convert it to a student visa.” He recalls not being sure if his visa was ever valid for being a high school student, even before it lapsed.

He also wasn’t at all sure about his sexuality. When he arrived, he says, “I was allegedly heterosexual” in his own mind and to the world. Not that there weren’t already signs. When people asked him what he wanted to do when he grew up, he’d usually tell them he wanted to be a Roman Catholic priest. But when pressed, he admits, “Actually, my first calling was to be a nun.”

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