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

On a hot Tuesday night in Jackson Heights, in a storefront next to a Rent-a-Center on Roosevelt Avenue, a meeting room fills rapidly. Over the din of the elevated 7 train, the large hall buzzes with Spanish dialects from various Latin American countries.

The space is the Queens home of Make the Road New York, an advocacy group that fights on behalf of immigrants. It’s standing-room-only for a dozen of the 60 people there; the room is humming by the time Segrereo Mendez arrives. Quite a few of the people there know the 61-year-old native Honduran, a longtime worker in the garment industry, as one of its most dedicated activists. But they don’t necessarily know her own story.

When President Ronald Reagan re-lit the Statue of Liberty torch in July 1986 and then, later that year, signed the Simpson-Mazzoli Act (also known as the Immigration Reform and Control Act), Mendez got lucky. An illegal immigrant herself, she was granted amnesty.

Reagan relit the torch and signed the amnesty bill in ’86
Reagan relit the torch and signed the amnesty bill in ’86
Noel Bordador sees himself as a “worker priest.”
Willie Davis
Noel Bordador sees himself as a “worker priest.”
Bordador: Amnesty gave him choices
Willie Davis
Bordador: Amnesty gave him choices

A one-in-a-million outcome for Mendez in ’86—more precisely, one in three million. A quarter of a century later, the number of illegal immigrants who would now be eligible for another amnesty has swollen to an estimated 12 million, and, in large part thanks to the flames fanned by fervent nativists of the Tea Party movement, the issue is far more heated.

But what about the three million immigrants who, like Mendez, were granted amnesty and became U.S. citizens? What happened to them? What did they do with their lives? Those questions are mostly forgotten in the newly hot debate this century. These are three of their stories.

The borough of Queens is the most diverse county in the United States. But it’s Arizona that is on the minds of the mostly Latin American immigrants gathered in Jackson Heights. Once the meeting at Make the Road begins, most people want to talk about the Draconian state law recently enacted in Arizona, known even back here in New York as S.B.1070. Under the law, local law-enforcement officers would get greater power to investigate immigration status.

People at the Queens meeting fear that their families could be torn apart—even though it is an Arizona law—because it could spur a nationwide wildfire of anti-immigration laws. More than one person expresses a feeling of betrayal by the current administration because they campaigned for Obama in 2008, hoping he would tackle immigration reform early. Instead, raids by ICE (the Orwellian acronym for the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency) have actually increased since George W. Bush left office.

“Democrats always have to prove they’re tough, so raids go up” under them, Make the Road Deputy Director Javier Valdés tells the Voice. The Democrats, he says, see immigrants as “being like the girlfriend you like, but you won’t bring home to your parents. It’s like, ‘Baby, baby, I love you—I just don’t want to be seen with you.’ ”

Segrereo Mendez’s immediate personal concern, however, is not Arizona, but Florida. She has just returned from Tampa, where her son had been briefly jailed after a traffic incident. His wife had paid his bail, but because he was an immigrant—even though his work permit was in order—he was held in custody for two more days while authorities checked out his papers. It didn’t have to be this way: When she became a citizen through Reagan’s amnesty program, she was allowed to sponsor her two Honduran sons for legal status, but one of them chose not to become a full citizen. Now that was causing him trouble—at a particularly touchy and turbulent time for immigrants.

Before amnesty, Mendez survived her own brushes with immigration officials. She came to the United States from Honduras, by way of Tijuana, in 1976, bringing one son with her and leaving one behind.

“It made me very, very sad” to leave him, she says, speaking in Spanish but with a tension that is recognizable in any language. After crossing the border illegally, she came to New York, where she had previously—and legally—spent a year on a visa.

Mendez got a job in the garment industry, stitching towels. She would work for the same company for 27 years as it moved its factory from Manhattan to Hoboken to Brooklyn. Before she started, she paid $50 to get a Social Security card in her own name. It was a legitimate number, and she didn’t use it to sponge off the system. Mendez worked and paid taxes, while also sending money back to Honduras. While helping her family there, she built a life here. Working a tough, manual-labor job, she quickly established credit, got a loan for a bedroom set, and even got an American Express card.

Before amnesty, of course, her life here was much more precarious. One day, in 1982, while on the bus to her job in Hoboken at the Abouchar Co. with her co-workers, they arrived to an unpleasant surprise. As she got off, Mendez recalls, “Someone just shouted, ‘Immigration!’ But it was too late. By the time I heard, they were in my face.”

Mendez turned and ran as fast as she could. “I was terrified they were going to handcuff me,” she said. They didn’t, but they did catch up with her a few blocks later. She was taken to detention in Newark with three others.

Over the next eight hours, she recalls, she was terrified that she’d be kept overnight and that no one would be able to take care of her son. Meanwhile, her factory called her union, which sent over a lawyer and told the four women not to sign anything.

The agents didn’t know what to make of Mendez, who produced a sheaf of documents, but none with a picture. How could someone who was illegal have so much paperwork? She also appeared to have something that eludes many citizens: sterling credit.

Mendez recalls that the last agent to interrogate her kept waving the documents at her and asking, “Just tell us who you are. This isn’t you!”

“I kept saying, ‘It’s me!’ ” Mendez says. “They wouldn’t believe me without picture ID.” She’d been so shaken that she’d forgotten she had her Honduran passport. The agents, she says, were stunned to see she’d been telling the truth. Because she had a clean financial history, a job, a child, and—like a lot of undocumented workers—a history of paying taxes, they let her go. They did warn her, Mendez recalls, that she would receive a letter telling her when she’d have to appear in court for possible deportation hearings.

“When I returned to the factory the next day,” she says, smiling broadly, “everyone clapped for me!” A few months later, however, two of the agents returned to the factory.

“I had gone to another building to pick up paychecks for people,” Mendez says, and when she returned, she recognized the duo. “I stayed very calm and stiff,” she recalls, “and when one said, ‘Where is your green card?’ I just said, ‘Green card? What is that? I am from Puerto Rico!’ and kept walking!”

That was in 1983, and for the next three years, Mendez kept waiting for the letter to come that would order her to appear in court for a deportation hearing. But it never did. She doesn’t know why. She stayed on her job, became a shop steward, and had another son.

In 1986, she applied for amnesty “the very day” she could file papers for it, she says. The union handled it for her and paid the fees, and she got a work permit, before eventually getting a green card and, finally, citizenship in the ’90s.

Free to come and go—and return to the U.S.—she visited Honduras to see the son she hadn’t seen for 11 years. By all accounts, the travel industry got a boost from the ’86 amnesty, and activists use that as an economic argument for another amnesty. “The number one reason people come to me to get their status sorted is they’ll say, ‘I miss my family. I want to go home and visit them,’ ” says Philip Kleiner, an attorney at the immigration-focused law firm Barst, Mukamal & Kleiner. “Can you imagine what it will do for the travel industry if 12 million people can suddenly fly for the first time in years?” In fact, he adds, “The idea that Republicans aren’t for amnesty is a myth. Amnesty is good for business.”

Immediately after she initiated her own amnesty process, Mendez says, she “spent the next three months volunteering, helping others to fill out their paperwork to get their documents.” After she became a full citizen, she recalls, she was elated to vote for the first time, and ever since, she has organized other newly minted citizens to vote. She appreciates citizenship, she says, because “there is so much more you can give to your country.”

After 27 years on the job, asthma and carpal tunnel syndrome forced Mendez into early retirement. At 61, she gets by with disability insurance, the pension from her union, and Social Security.

Mendez says that part of becoming an American citizen for her was being able to claim what she’d been paying into without fear. Even after being granted amnesty, she was initially told that she couldn’t claim her Social Security benefits, but that fear dissolved: “I know they had to give it to me,” she says. “I paid into it for 27 years. They can’t take that away from you.”

She now spends her days volunteering and taking classes, one of them an English class at Make the Road.

“You might think it’s strange that, after being here so many years, I don’t speak English,” she says. “But you have to know that for all those years in the factory, I worked with 300 people, and everyone spoke Spanish. Only the supervisor was Jewish.”

A quarter of a century after her own successful struggle to become a legal American, Mendez hasn’t lost her zeal. She recently participated in a 72-hour hunger strike at Judson Church to push for immigration reform. Meanwhile, she’s hoping her one holdout son will become a full citizen before he has any other troubles, and before anything from Arizona works its way toward Florida.

Edith Villavicencio reflects on a question that has weighed heavily on her mind for most of her life. It’s after 9 p.m. on a recent evening, and she’s watching her 11-year-old daughter play Guitar Hero and her four-year-old son gobble a snack at the kitchen table.

The family’s evening is winding down, and Villavicencio will soon have to chase the kids to bed. But before then, she talks to the Voice about the possibility of her having to make perhaps the hardest decision of her life: “I’m a mom, now, myself. I don’t know how I could leave my kids.”

It’s something she’s thought about ever since her mother and father left her at age six with relatives in Cuautla, a city in the Mexican state of Morelos known for its role in the War of Independence. They left to work in New York City—her mother as a garment worker, her father in restaurants.

She says that she’s not bitter and that they did try to explain to her and her brother and sister that they had to go to make a better life for the entire family. “But that’s no answer for a kid,” says Villavicencio, now 33. “It’s not something a child can understand.”

Villavicencio thinks she was particularly perplexed at the time because, as she recalls it, her family’s life in Mexico had been OK. Her father had an ironwork business. “I didn’t go without anything I needed,” she says, adding, “Maybe when you don’t have anything, you don’t miss anything?”

Then, in the late ’80s, her parents were granted amnesty, and they returned to Cuautla to visit their children for the first time as legal residents of the U.S. They planned to return to New York alone again, but 12-year-old Edith was having none of it. She recalls telling them, “I’m going with you. You are not leaving me behind this time.” Her mother says there was no convincing Edith, her youngest child, to stay, and so the three of them headed for Tijuana.

Villavicencio’s crossing into the country illustrates a galling point for people who say that amnesty and the various other parts of the Simpson-Mazzoli Act that aimed to halt further illegal immigration didn’t work. Villavicencio’s parents were legalized, but she was not. And though the amnesty law allowed the Villavicencios to eventually sponsor Edith and both of her siblings to become citizens (which they all did), she was not a legal immigrant when she initially came over at the age of 12.

Edith recalls the night crossing from Tijuana to San Diego as “an adventure,” but not particularly harrowing. They saw a couple of helicopters, she says, “[but] it didn’t feel scary to me at the time. The whole thing, honestly, took about 10 minutes. There was a highway, and we waited until some cars had passed—then we ran across.”

They walked to an apartment complex, and a smuggler tried to hustle them into a van, but Edith’s father, having been in the States for a while, decided to call a taxi instead. Good thing, too. As Villavicencio recalls, the van, stuffed with illegal immigrants, had a bad accident.

Though she was back with her parents, life wasn’t especially pleasant in New York. They moved often between different illegal living spaces. Usually they occupied just one room with a hot plate, small fridge, and one bed for the three of them. One of the worst places, she recalls, was in the basement of a building on West 49th Street, in pre-gentrified Hell’s Kitchen. The Villavicencios had one room, and shared a bathroom with several single tenants, including a prostitute. Most nights, she recalls, the prostitute would bring her tricks into the bathroom they all shared.

Villavicencio worked from a young age, as did her brother and sister when they were reunited. But she says she felt she was working toward something, unlike many of her friends—at age 15, her Quinceañera gift was legal-residency papers.

“I had these Mexican friends who were not eligible” for amnesty, she recalls. “Their families weren’t here at the right time, or they had come by themselves.” She would hang out with them, but at a certain time, she recalls, “I would say, ‘I have to go home to study,’ and they were just always saying, ‘I have to work.’ Work, work, work. All they did was work. All they’d ever do was work.” Villavicencio knew that her parents expected her to go to college someday: “We had a future, we had hope,” she says. “And that was because we had papers.”

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 to $36 billion, which would generate $4.5 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 that “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.”

The 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 that 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 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.”

As his teenage years went on, he hoped his feelings toward men might just be a “passing crush,” but they wouldn’t go away. He went to confession nearly every day. “There was one priest who was almost always there,” he recalls. “And I’d go in daily and start to confess, and he’d say, ‘You again?’ ” Nothing cured his homosexuality, of course, and Bordador recalls a key event near the end of high school: a youth retreat led by the Marist Brothers, who were very open in talking about sexuality. He particularly appreciated a book they gave him that told him being gay wasn’t a sin, but he still wasn’t sure if that’s what he was.

Before the days of well-organized and commonly used resources at LGBT centers, or even the Internet, there was a gay telephone switchboard Bordador could consult. He recalls an hour-long conversation on the hotline as “kind of wonderful. He asked me all of these questions that helped me to come out to myself, without his having to tell me, ‘You’re gay.’ ”

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 later. 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.)

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 he says affects him still. “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 Reagan amnesty law 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 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 PhD. 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.”

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 PhD 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, whom he has been with ever since. Though he says he is still close to his kin in the Philippines, 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.

But 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.”

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