Chef Byron Gomez would not have had his career had it not been for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program that temporarily allows some young undocumented immigrants who were brought here as children to remain in the United States and also obtain work permits. He immigrated with his family to New York from Costa Rica as a child, and later made his way from Burger King to cooking alongside chefs such as Daniel Hamm and Daniel Boulud. He recently appeared in Season 18 of top chefHe is now Executive Chef at No. 7908 in Aspen, Colorado. Here, he talks about his life in America as an immigrant, and how DACA allowed him and many others to live a decent life. – Jaya Saxena
When my parents made the decision to move us to the US from Costa Rica, they were well established in their careers. My mother had attended university and was one of the first members of her family who was able to get an education after high school. My dad was a salesperson and he did really well. The reason they left was not because they were on the verge of poverty or were living on the streets. They just wanted a better life for themselves and their children. Now I realize how brave that was, and how scary that was. I was eight years old and had no documents when we moved. And I can say with confidence that the only reason I’ve come to where I am today professionally, as a chef, is because of DACA.
From a young age I knew that I grew up in a different environment than the one that was legally here in this country. It’s scary, you have no idea what it takes to fight what’s going to happen in adulthood. I have lived in the United States for much longer than I have lived in Costa Rica. New York was my home but I felt like a stranger. As a teenager, I started working at Burger King on Long Island. One of the reasons was because it was easier to work there without documents. But I also didn’t want to be a factory worker like my parents. I felt like I needed to do something creative with my own hands, and I wanted to see opportunities beyond what my parents and other people in my community were doing. At the time, I had no idea that the start would lead me to great places.
When DACA was introduced in 2012, I was a young adult, and I was skeptical. I had recently moved to New York City, and had made my way to work at Épicerie Boulud. But when someone outside of the immigrant community says they want to help with something like DACA, you think, “Is this a trap? Are you trying to get all my information so you can finally report me?” I wanted to give it time. But by 2014, seeing trial and error, seeing how people in my community were able to go to college, or just open a bank account, gave me more confidence.
It was a life changing experience. It opened a lot of doors in front of me. Having my DACA status allowed me to work under chefs Daniel Boulud and Daniel Hamm, both immigrants themselves, and became my mentors. When I joined the team at Eleven Madison Park, it was the first time I was able to take full advantage of the employee benefits. I was able to contribute to my 401(k) and get employer-based health insurance. I was able to start building credit and opening bank accounts. But more than that, it gave me confidence. Now that it’s been 10 years since DACA is here, I can talk about it and say, “Hey, you were the guy America didn’t want to give a chance.” I am not the only one. There are nearly a million of us here that save an estimated $7.8 billion to the economy. And that was just from a statement you guys gave us 10 years ago. So I think it really works.
Of course, nothing is guaranteed. During the last presidential administration, during those four years, I would get up and look at my phone to see how far they might go to take DACA away. You feel like you are in prison in a place where they preach freedom. You’re wandering places where you can’t say, “Hey, this is who I am and this is what I did.” It was a very stressful and frightening period, those four years. Last year, President Biden recognized Immigrant Heritage Month with a declaration for the first time, nine years after DACA began. But on July 6 there is a court hearing that will determine whether or not DACA’s protections will continue, and it doesn’t look good for the beneficiaries. After all that was said, after all that was promised, there is still this situation.
But that doesn’t mean I’ll be afraid to go out. In 2021 my bravo season top chef aired. It was the first time I’ve spoken publicly about being a DACA recipient and the outpouring of support has been amazing. I was nervous to talk about it at first – will people judge me? Will they see me differently? The number of parents and children who reached out to tell me that I inspired them has made me more proud than I have ever been. Today I am proud to be a prime example to immigrants and how DACA can change lives. Much of the fear around and within the immigrant community is due to a lack of knowledge and education. If I can change someone’s mind about the value immigrants bring to the United States, and show them how important DACA is, my job is done.
I just think there has to be a better way for the government to honor those who have honored this country. I want to be part of this community. And the more we educate people, the more we start talking about it, and the more examples we show of this software, the more it gives people a different view. We are no different than anyone else. We have aspirations, we have dreams. It only takes two people to talk and make a move in order to get to know these things.