Ronnie's Kids

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

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.

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

“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.”

Three years after he started, he returned home for a visit, still having not made up his mind about his career. “I was on a bus in the Philippines,” he says, “and I was thinking, ‘I have to make this decision.’” He had been accepted to a Ph.D. program in Berkeley, California, and was thinking of leaving social work. Suddenly, while he was in the midst of his reverie, the bus driver braked sharply, and Bordador was thrown against the glass.

The bus had braked for a kid who’d jumped in its path. “He was singing Christmas carols, begging for money,” Bordador recalls. “I thought, in that moment, there is so much suffering in the world. And in that moment, I knew I would be a social worker. It was more important. It was the way I could make the most difference.”

When he returned to America, he went back to Hunter to get a master’s degree in social work. After he finished, his jobs took him out of the East Village and around all five boroughs, working with people with HIV, going into caves and subway tunnels to help the homeless.

He did eventually become a priest—but in the Episcopal Church, which allows gay clergy. But even after he finished seminary (for the second time) and was finally ordained, he never could bring himself to be a parish priest.

“I have a problem with ‘preacher perks,’” he says. Instead, he says, he models his career on the “worker priest” that came out of France in World War II—priests who were simply supposed to “go out into the world and be with people.” (They never revealed they were priests, nor does he ever do so as a social worker.) He works during the week for a social-welfare agency and, on weekends, is attached to a church in the West Village. When he visits the Philippines each year, he volunteers with an Episcopal chapel ministry that takes place atop a trash heap.

“I like the idea of being a priest in the world,” he says. “I like preaching about my experiences in the pulpit. And I like that many people will know that I know what they’re going through: the struggles of a common person, struggles of losing a job due to a budget cut”—which recently happened to him—“of living paycheck to paycheck. I’m glad I can relate.”

Around the time he finally became a citizen, in 1997, he met his current boyfriend, with whom he has been ever since. Though he is still close to his kin in the Philippines, he says, he has made his own family in this country.

Yes, Bordador still feels Filipino. But, he says, “I am proud to be a part of the United States, to be a citizen.” He says it’s not “just being gay, although that is great to be that here. I wouldn’t be able to be very open” in the Philippines.

Like so many other immigrants who have flocked to America since its inception, he knows what it’s like to grow up under authoritarian rule. “I know I have a better chance of justice here—I feel very American in my thinking, in my accountability to society, in my accountability to other people,” he says. “I think that’s very American.”

Additional reporting and translation by Araceli Cruz.

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