Ronnie's Kids

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

Always religious, Bordador got involved with Dignity, the gay Roman Catholic group, and joined in Act-Up’s demonstrations. He soon had his first boyfriend. But though he had somewhat settled the question of his sexuality, he had a tough decision to make: Should he stay in New York illegally to go to college, or go back to the Philippines?

“I knew my parents would never hurt me,” he says, if he returned home gay—though he wouldn’t come out to them for more than a decade. However, he wasn’t so sure about everyone else. A small-town boy, Bordador says, “I would be the laughingstock of the village. I would bring great shame upon my family.”

There were gay members of his large extended family, but their experiences didn’t bode well for him. He had a male transgender cousin who started to live as a woman. The last time she had seen her father, he recalls, “he beat her, stripped her naked of all her clothes and banished her from the house. Somehow, she got back in and got some clothes and escaped out a window—but they never saw each other again.” (She eventually fled to San Francisco.)

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

In the end, Bordador decided to stay in the United States. “I was gay in New York City, which was great in the ’80s. And I had a boyfriend. I didn’t want to give all of that up. I didn’t want to go home to be completely stifled.” He didn’t have the option, of course, of legalizing his status by marrying a citizen in good conscience.

Bordador got a job as a stock clerk for a music publisher, worked as a church organist on the weekends and enrolled at Hunter. As he began to spread his gay wings a bit, he had a falling-out with his aunt and moved out to be with his boyfriend.

But as much as the boyfriend factored in to his decision to stay in the States, the relationship didn’t prove healthy. “One time, he even got me pinned down on the floor and beat me up really bad,” Bordador says. “I was afraid to go to the emergency room because they’d call the police and there would be an investigation.” He’d already gotten a letter in 1981 from Immigration telling him he couldn’t stay in the country, and though they hadn’t contacted him since, he was always worried.

To make matters worse, he says, his boyfriend would threaten to have him deported. During those years, Bordador recalls, “I never knew who I could trust.” It’s something that still affects him, he says. “To this day, people say, ‘I can’t read you. What are you thinking?’” He is, by nature, quiet and kind, and it hurt, he says, “feeling like I had to lie to people.”

Bordador finally got away from his boyfriend, and when he graduated from Hunter, he enrolled in Union Theological Seminary, planning to become, if not a priest (or a nun), then at least a church historian. The guilt he says he felt at the time—of being in an abusive relationship, of being in the country illegally, of being gay—fit in with his studies. “It all goes with being Catholic,” he says, with a laugh. He knew by this point that he couldn’t be openly gay and be a priest, but he hoped to somehow answer what he felt was his calling.

It was when he started seminary that the Simpson-Mazzoli Act passed. Bordador heard about it through the Catholic Church, which was very involved in lobbying for the legislation—some parishes were sanctuaries for illegal immigrants facing deportation. But though the Church was helping people to process their applications, Bordador was too ashamed to let them know his own status. So he went to an immigration center in Long Island City to sign up.

Upon graduation from seminary, Bordador figured he would work for a couple of years before returning to school to get a Ph.D. He had volunteered doing social work and took a job at an agency on the Lower East Side when school was over.

Social work was the thing for him, especially working with people who were homeless, had HIV or were mentally ill. “Someone once said that there is a disintegration that happens in life for a purpose,” Bordador recalls. He felt like he had been through that—when he was living illegally, when he was losing his “straight” life and when he realized he’d never be a Catholic priest.

“I don’t like to romanticize suffering or pain,” says Bordador, “but it has crystallized for me what it means to be a social worker and a priest. To simply be in touch with people—with their pain, their feelings and their struggle.

“I think that’s why I like working with the homeless, with people who just can’t get their act together. I have a spiritual kinship with them. I am hoping that, in being with them in their disintegration, somehow there is God’s grace within that.”

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