NEW YORK—The streets of Jackson Heights on a summer night are a steamy haze of color, crowded sidewalks, and the aroma of ethnic food. John Hilario, 26, is at home here. After work in Manhattan, he rides the yellow line to Roosevelt Ave. He strolls past women in bright saris and men in turbans, past a booth full of Islamic prayer beads and booklets, past vendors selling tomatoes and onions, Jackfruit and bitter gourds. Empanada shops vie for business with Indian sweet shops, Italian restaurants, and Bangladeshi markets.
Hilario grew up not far from Jackson Heights. His childhood was full of running up and down stairs and playing with friends. He loved to draw, devoured comic books, and even taught himself animation. High school was pretty typical, full of video games, movies with friends, and curfew arguments with his father. As a Filipino, he felt at home among the hodgepodge of Asian, Middle Eastern, and Hispanic families.
But all of that changed when John turned 16 and argued with his parents for permission to get a job and a driver's license. They pushed back, encouraging him to focus on getting good grades. When he persisted, they sat him down and told him the truth: “We don’t have any papers.”
In 1991, Hilario’s father left his job as an architect in the Philippines and moved to the United States, searching for better opportunity and less corruption. In Queens, he opened a driving school and made plans to bring his family into the country legally. But John’s mother refused to wait. She applied for tourist visas, flew to New York with her four-year-old son, and never returned. Formerly a banker, she spent her time making a home in a basement while her husband took up side jobs in construction and home improvement to make ends meet.
Their situation improved when Hilario’s father found a salaried job. But when the truth came out, the appearance of normalcy couldn’t satisfy Hilario. Without a U.S. birth certificate or social security number, he couldn’t get a driver’s license or legal work. He descended into anger and confusion: “I felt like a subhuman, like I couldn’t amount to anything because I didn’t have this number.”
John had become one of roughly 1.8 million illegal immigrants brought to the United States before they turned 16. Because of their status, upward mobility is difficult: They can’t apply for legal work, financial aid in college, or driver’s licenses.
Depressed, John locked himself in his room and withdrew from friends. He stayed out late into the night for hours on end without telling his parents, and coped by experimenting with weed and alcohol. He eventually found work off the books: 60 hours a week at a pizzeria. “That’s where I got these,” he said laughing, holding out his arms and pointing to burn marks. He worked full time to pay for college and graduated in 2011, right before President Barack Obama issued the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) directive.
DACA helped: The government approved John for a work permit, which translated into a retail job in Manhattan. But the ultimate improvement came when he accepted Christ. He’d had a knowledge of God before. His family was Catholic and he consumed philosophy books religiously. Then he met Christians in college who befriended him, fielded his questions, and constantly pointed him to the Bible as, “a source of hope and identity.” One night, while reading Francis Chan’s Crazy Love, his understanding of God became more than cerebral: “It was like a spear pierced my heart, that someone would die for me. That floored me.”
But choosing to follow Christ didn’t fix everything: John’s father wouldn’t come to his baptism, he struggles to stay connected to his family, and he still has no clear path to citizenship. But it has helped him realize a greater identity.
“The gospel means I don’t have to cling to American ideals anymore,” he said. “I can identify more with the Kingdom of Christ than with [a] nation.”