Chief Byron Gomez wouldn’t have his career if it weren’t for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program which temporarily allows some young undocumented immigrants who were brought here while they were children to stay in the United States and also receive work authorization. He immigrated with his family to New York from Costa Rica as a child, and later rose through the ranks of Burger King to cook alongside chefs like Daniel Humm and Daniel Boulud. Recently, he appeared in season 18 of Excellent chef, and now he’s the executive chef of 7908 in Aspen, Colorado. Here he talks about his life in America as an immigrant and how DACA enabled him and many others to live a dignified life. — Jaya Saxena
When my parents made the decision to move us to the United States from Costa Rica, they were well established in their careers. My mother had gone to college, one of the first in her family to be able to get an education after high school. My father was a salesman and did very well. The reason they left was not because they were on the verge of poverty or living on the streets; they just wanted a better life for themselves and their children. Now I realize how brave that was, how scary that was. I was eight years old and had no papers when we moved. And I can say with confidence that the only reason I am where I am today professionally, as a chef, is because of DACA.
From an early age, I knew that I was growing up in a different environment than those who were here legally in this country. It’s scary, you have no idea what it takes to battle what awaits you as an adult. I have lived in the United States much longer than in Costa Rica. New York was my home but I felt like a stranger. When I was a teenager, I started working at a Burger King on Long Island. One of the reasons was that it was easier to work there without papers. But also, I didn’t want to be a factory worker like my parents. I felt I had to do something creative with my hands and wanted to see opportunities beyond what my parents and other people in my community were doing. At that time, I had no idea that this beginning would take me to amazing places.
When DACA was introduced in 2012, I was a young adult and was skeptical. I had recently moved to New York and worked my way up to work at Épicerie Boulud. But when someone from outside 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 possibly report me? I wanted to give him time. But in 2014, seeing the trial and error, seeing how people in my community could go to college or just open a bank account, gave me more confidence.
It was a life changing experience. It opened so many doors for me. Obtaining my DACA status allowed me to work under the direction of chefs Daniel Boulud and Daniel Humm, themselves immigrants and who became mentors for me. When I joined the Eleven Madison Park team, it was the first time I could take full advantage of the benefits. I was able to contribute to a 401(k) and get employer health insurance. I was able to start building up credit and opening bank accounts. But more than that, it gave me confidence. Now that DACA’s 10th anniversary is here, I can talk about it and say, “Hey, I was the guy America didn’t want to try.” And I’m not the only one. There are nearly a million of us here contributing about $7.8 billion to the economy. And that was just because of a permit you 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 wake up and look on my phone to see how far they could go to remove DACA. It feels like being in prison in a place where freedom is preached. You walk around places without being able to say, “Hey, this is who I am and this is what I did.” It was a very stressful and scary time, those four years. Last year, President Biden recognized Immigrant Heritage Month with a proclamation for the first time, nine years after DACA began. But on July 6, a court hearing will determine whether the DACA protections will continue, and that doesn’t look too good for the recipients. After all that has been said, after all that has been promised, there is still this situation.
But that doesn’t mean I’m going to be afraid to go out. In 2021 my season of Bravo’s Excellent chef broadcast. This was the first time I had spoken so publicly about being a DACA recipient and the outpouring of support was incredible. I was nervous about talking about it at first – would people judge me? Would they see me differently? The number of parents and children who have reached out to me to let me know that I inspire them has made me prouder than I have ever been before. Today I am proud to be a great example for immigrants and how DACA can change a life. Much of the fear about and within the immigrant community is due to 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 society. And the more we educate people, the more we start talking about it, the more examples we show of this program, the more it will give people a different perspective. We are no different from anyone. We have aspirations, we have dreams. It only takes a few people to speak up and make a move for these things to be recognized.